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Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Twenty-Two: Persona

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

We return to Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman for his second entry in this series, Persona. This odd psychological thriller stars legendary actresses and frequent Bergman collaborators Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson as two women engaged in a brutal mental duel. Released in 1966, this high-minded film received multiple awards from the National Society of Film Critics and Guldbagge, with Andersson receiving tremendous recognition. It also was included in the All-TIME 100 Movies list from TIME Magazine. This picture is the type of pretentious, difficult creation that critics love to praise, especially because it comes from Bergman and includes two original female performances. However, does this deliberate story truly warrant recognition as a Great Movie?

Andersson stars as Alma – an attractive young nurse charged with taking care of the depressed actress Elisabeth Vogel, played by Ullman. Pausing during the middle of an on-stage performance, she refuses to speak and has inexplicably shunned all contact. Traveling to a colleague’s seaside residence, Alma lives with Elisabeth and hopes to improve her condition. However, as she grows accustomed to the silence, the engaged woman opens up about her life and begins to lose control. Her demeanor begins to mimic her charge’s presence, and their unspoken connection becomes extremely fierce. During a memorable sequence, Alma recounts a sexual experience on a beach with two men and a female friend to Elisabeth. The lengthy description reveals the breakdown of her Personal barriers and the movement towards a confusing mental state. As the women become closer, the lines between reality and dreams begin to blur, which leads to a strange, unique conclusion.

I have to admit that this was one of the most confusing films that I’ve watched during the entire series. The basic story is easy to follow, but the ensuing developments raise serious doubts about Alma’s true personality and the on-screen events. One particular scene involves the supposed arrival of Elisabeth’s husband, who is blind. Believing Alma is his wife, Mr. Vogel seduces the nurse right in front of Elisabeth. This move seems odd, and it’s highly possible that it occurs in Alma’s imagination. But Bergman gives no clear explanation about the true activities during this sequence. The film contains surreal montages of rapid-fire images at the beginning and end that bring the entire story into question. Is he just messing with our heads, or do these shots indicate hidden meanings? My patience was tested during both sequences, but I have to admire the artistry on display. Bergman even cracks the fourth wall and shows himself filming the action near the end. By this point, we’re already removed from the primary story, so it’s not very jarring, but still offers a minor surprise.

Persona includes numerous wondrous images that are both haunting and perplexing. Roger Ebert describes it as “a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries.” This picture includes several remarkable sequences and a unique style that feels ahead of its time. However, an aura of pretentiousness pervades everything and diminishes the overall effect. Bergman’s artistry is without question, but his ability to craft a truly Great Movie remains in question. I would not give this film that status because the high-minded approach never crosses the screen to truly grab the audience. I’m interested in viewing more Bergman creations, which is a positive development, but wouldn’t consider myself a serious fan at this time.

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