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American Cinematographer Magazine

Persona (1966)
1.33:1 Dolby Digital Mono
MGM Home Entertainment, $24.98

Ingmar Bergman's mid-Sixties masterpiece Persona has invited myriad interpretations over the years. Emotionally intense and psychologically penetrating, the film defies conventional analysis, encouraging viewers to come up with their own ideas about its deeper meanings. Even Bergman biographer Marc Gervais, who provides an audio commentary for this disc, seems completely flummoxed at times - or loath to impose his own theories on the audience. "What is going on here?" he asks more than once.

Conjecture aside, Bergman announces some of his intentions during the film's cryptic opening sequence, which accosts the viewer with a rapid barrage of unsettling images. The machinery of a film projector mingles with shots of familiar Bergman motifs (a spider, a sacrificial lamb, a crucifixion) before we are taken into the stark white limbo of what appears to be a morgue. Here, we spy a pale, thin, puffy-lipped boy who initially seems to be a corpse lying on a gurney; after a phone rings, he stirs and stands, reaching out toward a translucent wall in a vain attempt to touch the rear-projected image of a woman's face, which blurs and morphs into that of another female with similar features. A moment later, the title card appears: Persona.

It's an audacious sequence, and one that has sparked endless debates among cinephiles. But in the book Bergman on Bergman, the director explains that he wrote Persona while cooped up in a hospital, where he was suffering from a viral infection of the inner ear that brought on attacks of giddiness. "I made believe I was a little boy who died, yet who wasn't allowed to be really dead, because he kept on being woken up by telephone calls from the Royal Dramatic Theatre," Bergman reveals with mordant wit. Indeed, the sequence seems to indicate that the filmmaker's dreary hospital sojourn led him to abandon his old tropes and channel fresh, experimental ideas. Nevertheless, Bergman himself cautions against any concrete interpretations: "You can interpret it any way you like. As with any poem, images mean different things to different people."

Bergman's larger purpose seems clear, however: like other filmmakers of his era, he was drawn to the idea of radically deconstructing his art, and disrupting a narrative in a way that would reveal the magician and his tricks. He had come to feel that creative artists tended to prey on their subjects, noting in B on B that "artists, with their enormous vanity, are [usually] less interesting than the people who are sitting there waiting for them to edify them. I loathe the whole of this humble attitude toward artists, who really ought to be given a kick in the arse." (His emphasis.) Suffice to say that with Persona, that kick is well delivered.

After the shock of its opening montage, the film settles into its main story, which concerns an accomplished actress (Liv Ullmann, making the most of her big break) who has suddenly and willfully gone mute. The actress is placed in the care of a well-meaning nurse (Bibi Andersson, in her greatest role), who accompanies her to a serene seaside retreat. There, facing the stony silence of her patient, the nurse begins to unburden her emotional baggage in a torrent of revelatory confessions, which the actress absorbs with vampiric appetite. Eventually, the women's personalities begin to merge, with shattering emotional consequences.

Justly celebrated for its rich, nonlinear insights about the human condition, Persona also illustrates the power of carefully constructed images. Sven Nykvist, ASC, in one of the most memorable of his many collaborations with Bergman, stages a clinic in black-and-white cinematography, using spare lighting and clever compositions to symbolically convey the women's inner feelings and the subtle shifts in their relationship. Rules are broken again and again - at one point, the film itself seems to snap and burn, stopping the story short; at another, Andersson recites the same monologue twice in succession, from opposing camera angles. Nyvkist's use of shadows and silhouettes is masterful, and his exquisite close-ups of the actresses showcase their remarkable performances to fullest effect, culminating in a notorious moment when their two faces blend into one. (Bergman reveals that he optically joined the "less attractive" sides of the actresses' faces, and recalls that when he first showed the shot to the women on a Moviola, each thought it was the face of the other.)

Persona's status as a cinematic landmark makes this disc a mandatory purchase for film buffs; thankfully, aside from a few instances of excess grain, the transfer is admirably clean and preserves the full range of Nyvkist's gray-scale palette. The commentary by Gervais offers occasional nuggets of useful and illuminating insight, but he generally asks more questions than he answers, and tends to state the obvious as he analyzes the action. However, additional details about this influential film can be gleaned from the featurette "A Poem in Images" (which features a few comments from Bergman) and on-camera interviews with Ullmann and Andersson.

- Stephen Pizzello

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.