Ingmar Bergman's 1966 psychological drama Persona is more a film to be admired than it is one to be enjoyed. It's never particularly tense, there's not much of a storyline, it's hard to get emotionally invested in either of the main characters, and if you're looking for laughs you've definitely come to the wrong place.
But if you like a film to provoke thought, set you off on a bout of soul searching, leave you feeling emotionally bereft, or if you simply enjoy scratching your head there's a lot here for you. Bergman hoped the film would be felt rather than understood and I think it's safe to say he successfully achieved that goal. The Wikipedia page for Persona has a section titled 'Themes and interpretations' and to give you an idea of how many of those themes and interpretations this film potentially covers that section is split into five subsections:- Identity and duality, psychology, gender and sexuality, art and theatre, and, rather fantastically, vampires.
None of these themes are writ large and yet all, and more, are implied. The narrative arc, what there is of one, is actually a very simple story. Successful actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) has been struck dumb while appearing on stage as Electra and has been referred to a doctor. On realising that she's neither mentally nor physically ill she is left in the charge of young, inexperienced, nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) for treatment.
Somewhat oddly Alma's seniors have decided the best course of action is to whisk Elisabet, and Alma, off to a remote cottage on a Swedish island (Faro, in the Baltic Sea just north off Gotland) to see if she can, somehow (it's not explained how), coax words out of her, get her to break her self enforced silence.
Alma's success or not in this mission is not particularly relevant to either the plot or our appreciation of the film. We see Alma and Elisabet strike up a friendship, of sorts, and witness them preparing mushrooms together, swimming, driving Volvos, and, from the part of Alma at least, sharing their most intimate secrets.
As Alma divulges stories of orgies and abortions and Elisabet sits dumb but listening intently we're forced to contemplate the nature of their relationship and, possibly, the nature of all relationships. Is the talker the dominant power or does the power lie in the hands of the silent partner, the listener? Do relationships/friendships depend on delicate power balances or can power sharing be mutually beneficial?
The viewer, like Alma, may wish for an answer but, in an echo of Samuel Beckett (a possible influence), none ever comes. Simply more silence. Yet again another chance to look deep into one's own soul. Is it a vacuum or a tangled mess of conflicted emotions and desires? Can it be both at the same time?
As Alma talks more and more it becomes unclear who exactly is the patient and who's the medic in this dynamic. Bertha Pappenheim aka Anna O called the treatment she received from Austrian physician Josef Breuer a 'talking cure' (a kind of self therapy overseen by a professional in which sufferers talk themselves through, and eventually out of, their anxieties) but if that's what's at hand here it's clear that Alma, rather than Elisabet, is the one who's 'benefitting'.
Persona asks difficult questions about how we protect ourselves on to others, about the multiple masks we develop as life's baggage piles up inside us, about the personas we construct for ourselves, and about how we at times try to strip them down and purify ourselves so we can start again with a clean slate.
Is a totally silent person a tabula rasa we can feel safe unloading ourselves on to? Or projecting our deepest darkest desires towards? We all build up images in our heads of what people are like and they're often constructed around what we want them to be like. Do we feel frustrated or even betrayed when our image of a person doesn't fit easily into their own equally constructed persona or do we carry on trying to ram a square peg into a round hole?
Again - no answers. Just more food for thought. To confuse matters further it seems that the character of Elisabet, whoever that might be, is beginning to bleed into, infect, or even take over the character of Alma. Earlier we didn't know if Alma was curing Elisabet or Elisabet was curing Alma. Now we're not even sure who is who.
Bergman's used a few, understandably slightly dated, pieces of studio trickery to indicate this merging, or takeover, of personalities but he's also used lots of other jarring effects to create genuinely unsettling, and often completely baffling, set pieces. Scenes are repeated verbatim, there are dream sequences that could be hallucinations, hallucinations that could be dream sequences, there's a boy lying in a bed who puts his hand up to a big screen to suggest this is all happening in a distant dimension, there's a flashing vision of an erect cock for no apparent reason whatsoever and, just to turn your stomach, there's the image of a nail being hammered through an unspecified person's palm. All set to Lars Johan Werle's jerky modernist score.
Occasionally, very occasionally, something of the outside world is allowed in to Alma and Elisabet's isolated existence. But as it's footage of the self immolation of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc protesting about the persecution of Buddhists by Ngo Dinh Diem's South Vietnamese government or a still photo of the Nazi suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 that led to 13,000 Jewish deaths these merely serve to underline what a horrible world it is out there and how silence or self-absorption may be utterly necessary as tools in a world that long ago stopped making sense.
The fact that this is considered by many critics the greatest Swedish film of all time seems to say more about film critics than anything else and just how much they love Ingmar Bergman. It seems unlikely it would've been a mutual love in, he seemed to have quite a dark view of the world did ol' Ingmar (he wrote this one in hospital recovering from pneumonia) and in Persona he was able to, slowly and somewhat depressingly, share that view with the rest of us.
It's almost as if Bergman has treated us like Alma treated Elisabet and used us as his own blank canvas to paint his own darkest desires on to. You may not enjoy that sort of thing but you can't deny it has a power. Allow yourself a trip to the dark side. Just don't make a permanent move there.