Maybe it was the stark, cold winters. Maybe it was the notion of transubstantiation. Maybe it was just the delirious visual impact of two stunningly beautiful actresses on the screen at the same time. Whatever route you chose, Ingmar Bergman’s riveting drama from 1966 calls into question many of our assumptions about modern society. How we honor the past. How we prepare for the future. How we live in the present.
It is a cinematic experience we return to time and time again at different points in our lives. We relish the indulgent beauty of its imagery. We’re haunted by the themes it interweaves into this simple narrative. It asks questions, though it rarely provides answers. It is more of a meditation, of sorts, on what it means to be human. Where we find solace. How we cope.
There are numerous themes and notions interweaving themselves throughout the narrative. Most of them have to do with the roles we play in each aspect of our lives. There is something softly transactional in the way the story develops. A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is sent to a remote cottage to live with and attempt to treat a well-known stage actress named Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann). For reasons that are not immediately made clear, Vogler has suddenly ceased to speak. During their time together, Elizabet listens as Alma shares intimate secrets about her life. After a short period of time, Alma begins having trouble distinguishing herself from Elizabet.
The fact that both women are similar in appearance only intensifies this building identity crisis. Susan Sontag has suggested that Persona is constructed as a series of variations on a theme of doubling. The subject of the film, in her view, is violence of the spirit. Others critics have pointed to the fact that Persona is a kind of modernist horror movie. Elisabet’s imbalance has been described as the hopeless dream to be, the shared condition of both life and art. In a sense, her dilemma is quite common: most of us cannot respond authentically to large-scale catastrophes such as the Holocaust or the Vietnam War. It is through the other that we most often find comfort, peace and resilience.
Although Bergman eschewed any formal religious beliefs, In Persona, he seems to be reminding us that we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper and that the love we send out into the world will ultimately come back to touch the lives of the ones we love most.
Or, to put it more succinctly, it is only through giving that we are finally able to grow and realize our true potential. and ultimate destiny.