Shot in 1965, when its director was suffering from deep depression, Persona is Ingmar Bergman’s most radical work—a minimalist two-hander (in which only one person speaks for the vast majority of the movie) that expanded what cinema could do in terms of both abstract montage and the juxtaposition of human faces. Its seven-minute prologue is itself so famous, and so dizzying, that Criterion’s new release of the film includes a 20-minute visual essay devoted entirely to unpacking that sequence. Other images are so iconic that they more or less define Bergman in the public imagination. When the Canadian comedy troupe SCTV did a Bergman parody in the late ’70s (it was that kind of show), they called their fake movie Whispers Of The Wolf—a mix of Hour Of The Wolf and Cries And Whispers—but most of the compositions were parodies of key shots from Persona. Even film buffs who generally find Bergman too dour and agonized for their taste (cough cough) (darts eyes about furtively to see if anyone is watching) often find that they love this picture, if only because it seems to be striving to reinvent the medium as it goes along.
In bare outline, it doesn’t sound like much, nor like much of a deviation from its director’s modus operandi. Following the insane prologue—which begins with the glowing carbon rods of an old-style film projector and includes living corpses, silent clowns, grotesque crucifixion imagery, and a near-subliminal erect penis—Persona introduces a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), who’s placed in charge of a famous actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann). Elisabet, Alma is informed, had some sort of breakdown while performing onstage, and now refuses to speak or even move, though it’s somehow been determined that she’s perfectly fine both physically and mentally. The remarkably empathetic doctor (Margaretha Krook) suggests that Alma take Elisabet to stay at a seaside cottage, where the two women gradually develop a close bond of friendship, even though Elisabet still won’t say a word. When Alma reads a letter Elisabet wrote that seems critical of her, however, things start to go haywire, shockingly signified by the movie itself suddenly appearing to get stuck in the gate and then burst into flames.
The traditional interpretation of subsequent events involves personality transference—an idea foreshadowed early on, when Alma notes how much she and Elisabet look alike (they don’t, really) and says she thinks she could be Elisabet if she tried hard enough, and Elisabet could be her. But while parts of the film are plenty mysterious, on the whole it’s considerably more transparent and less confounding than, say, Robert Altman’s 3 Women (upon which Persona had an unmistakable influence). There’s even an explanatory monologue, delivered twice from two different angles, concerning Elisabet’s fears of becoming a mother and her inability to feel genuine love for her son (who’s seen, according to the closing credits, during that creepy prologue, reaching out to caress the projected image of both women). But Bergman the overemphatic screenwriter, who still seems rooted in theater, is overwhelmed here by Bergman the visionary director, who finds so many striking ways to shoot two female faces (especially in relation to each other) that words become almost irrelevant, as Elisabet clearly believes.
Surprisingly, this is the first time Criterion has ever released Persona in any form—there wasn’t even a laserdisc back in the day. Their transfer is typically impeccable, capturing the film’s harsh whites and deep shadows; this is one of those films that should ideally be seen in a theater, but with that option increasingly unavailable even for those living in big cities, a first-rate Blu-ray will have to do. (There’s also a standard DVD in the set, as usual.) Supplements, however, are a bit on the skimpy side, with the main attraction being a feature-length documentary, Liv & Ingmar, that received politely respectful reviews upon its limited theatrical release last December. That’s okay, though. While it’s fascinating to hear scholar Peter Cowie analyze the meaning of the prologue’s rapid succession of seemingly unconnected images, Persona doesn’t really benefit from too much thought. It’s a visceral experience that’s best felt, accepted, and left alone to rattle around in your subconscious for years to come. Rest assured that it will.