Persona is really two films. First, the cold open with the cinema slowly bursting to life with the carbon rod flaring and the pre-film countdown showing the unexpected images. Who am I? Why am I watching this? Is the film itself broken before it begins? Or is that me? Why will nothing fit properly? Is death bleeding me? Or life? Will this begin before it ends?
Why are you watching me?
The quick images slow one clip at a time until we are left with ourselves, lying there, restless, unable to be comfortable with the incessant dripping of the responsibility that is keeping us from where we feel that we need to be. This is when the film, or rather second film, begins.
Persona, the main feature, is a study in mental health. A study in depression. Two sides of the same person struggling to find their voice in the shadows. One, the silent front-facing vision, what people see; the one held together by tenuous stitches that eventually shuts down, fostering a divide between itself and the outspoken inward-facing version.
The inner self screaming at the other. The silent keeping the loud quiet and at bay so the rest of the world is not taken back by the fierce need to not lay complacent. The only time that the silent makes a peep is to calm the screams and cease violent intent.
Ingmar Bergman wrote Persona while hospitalized with pneumonia alone, after a meeting the two principal actors. Bibi Andersson plays Alma, a nurse hired to take care of Elisabet Vogler, played by Liv Ullmann twisted what he was originally working and wrote Persona. These two women are part of a cast of five characters; they share the screen almost exclusively after the cold open and the vast majority of the dialogue is performed by Alma.
Alma does most of the talking while taking care of Elisabet at a seaside cottage. When we meet Elisabet she had recently suffered a breakdown while making a film, and as a result she stopped all vocal communication. During their time at the cottage, Alma tells Elisabet more details about her private life than she had ever admitted before, giving Alma a relationship that she internally escalated to the point of a mental breakdown.
Persona is not a film for everyone, and should certainly not be viewed while in an emotional state. Critical reception of this film tends to both polls with many citing it, including Sight & Sound, as being one of the greatest films ever made, while the other side claims that is it an inferior melodrama that is granted too much latitude because of the name Bergman. I am leaning towards the first camp. The film touched me on a personal level and I assume it will stick with me for a long time.