Ingmar Bergman is a director who can deliver more in a half an hour of a film than most directors do in their career. A true giant and a poet of human suffering; he deals with the pain of being a man in ways similar to those of Michael Haneke. Both of them show the causes and effects of psychic suffering, but in different manners. Bergman goes farther and more rivetingly than anyone else. In his film Persona he follows the actress Elisabet Vogler takes a vow of silence, she is mute while acting as Elektra (a possible allusion to Electra’s complex) and she travels to an island (a constant Bergman leitmotif) with Alma, a nurse who becomes infatuated with her and their personalities seemingly blend.
To emphasize the word seemingly, it must be said that it is much more complex than a simple gaze can suggest. Firstly, Elisabet is the one who seems to “overpower” Alma mentally. They are both mentally very strong; Elisabet is older and thus more experienced, but as Alma says later in the film, she is young and adaptable, she can change. The term which is predominant in the film is to analyze, it is another constant Bergman motif (e.g. Through the Looking Glass). At first, Elisabet analyzes Alma and betrays her and later Alma does the same to Elisabet, but in a much more cruel fashion. She strips her naked until Elisabet is completely crushed.
The psychoanalyst who (like many others) distanced himself from Freud – Carl Jung – defines the term persona as: “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression on others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual”. Elisabet is obviously trying to conceal and hide her true nature, which is revealed by Alma at the end of the film. But, as the psychiatrist suggests, that is simply not possible. Her reactions to the outside world reveal as much as her words. The merging of personalities surely does happen, but only in certain moments of weakness. In other moments, they are individuals who strive to accomplish themselves, each in their own way. Elisabet, as an actress, tries to exclude herself from her sorrows, while Alma follows her instinct for security and everlasting bonds.
Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein
Throghout the whole film, Elisabet says only one sentence and Alma asks herself whether she heard it well and if it really happened. Elisabet may be compared to stone, while Alma with her remodeling of herself, with water. Stone statues are shown a few times during the film, and in one shot Alma is shown as she is talking to one of them. Lighting in the film is spell-binding, light is rather dim, pointing to the solitary pain of the heroines. The earlier mentioned Jungian term persona implies the mask one wears in public; this makes one’s personality mildly schizophrenic and this is the theme Persona deals with mostly. We can see this friction vividly in Elisabet’s personality.
She seems cold and indifferent, but when she watches the burning corpse on the television, we can clearly see her overwhelming sensitivity. One of the most important aspects of Elisabet’s character is that she is an actress. She is trained to decieve, to pretend to be someone else. Her voluntary silence shows the great strength of character, but also the inability to cope with herself and her surroundings. She simply cannot, not only live with, but live the mistakes she has made in her life. She seems to channel her hatred toward Alma, but the hatred is her own, directed at herself. Elisabet is played by Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s long-time associate and companion.
In one interview when she talks about Bergman, she says that people who live with the darkness they possess in themselves, with the horrros of solitary pain, transfer that energy toward others. This is precisely what happens in Persona, Alma becomes both infatuated with Elisabet’s charisma, but it is also utterly destructive for her. In the end, she repossesses herself but serves as an agent of destruction and fury. The final monologue is filmed from two angles, each showing the face of one of the heroines. It may be harrowing to watch, but Bergman’s brilliance and genius lies in presenting the darkest aspects of psyches. Another theme the film deals with is a failure of modern man to communicate with others (another constant theme in his work), the result is devestating, for the individuals and their well-being.