Around the World in 50 Films: #1 Sweden – Persona (1966)

Around the world in 50 films

This review marks the first of many to come. I have set myself an aim to watch and
review a film from as many countries as possible for the St. Andrews Award and
my own pleasure. The initial target is fifty, but that may increase depending
on how I feel.

Tracing my love for foreign, artistic and generally weird films back to one picture
leads me to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. I took this out of the University library
on a whim after an online recommendation and was awestruck from the initial
montage. It seems a perfect choice for my first review, so here commences my
epic journey around the world of film.

Bergman has made a great number of influential, complex and beautiful films, but
Persona stands among the most singular of his works. It concerns Elizabeth
Vogler (the incomparable Liv Ullman), a stage actress who suddenly turns mute
during a performance. She is committed to a hospital, where a nurse named Alma
(Bibi Andersson) is put in charge of her. When they are sent away for a respite
at a secluded summer house by the beach, Alma confides all her cares and fears
to Elizabeth and their identities become blurred.

 The film – as most created by Bergman – is less about the story and more about the
questions which it asks and the answers which it gives (or doesn’t give). The
explorations of identity, motherhood, art and the human psyche are deep and
complex, requiring multiple viewings to truly appreciate.

If philosophical musings aren’t your cup of tea, then the film can simply be
experienced passively as a work of art. The cinematography of frequent
collaborator Sven Nykvist is breathtakingly beautiful; he captures every
expression on the actresses faces perfectly and composes each frame with the
skill of a master artist. The lighting at once seems natural and dreamlike.
This is particularly notable in a scene near the beginning of the film where
Elizabeth’s face as she lays on her bed slowly darkens as light leaves the
room. The shot is both beautiful and terrifying.

Bergman has a knack of coaxing the best possible performances from his cast and this
skill is displayed to its full power here. Alma seems completely open, innocent
and full of vitality. As the film climaxes however, we witness a venomous,
grudging side of her. Bibi Andersson plays both of these parts perfectly;
exposing an almost childish naivety with animalistic reactions to hurt and
betrayal. Liv Ullman is silent for almost the whole film, but gets across more
emotions than most could dream of with just her face.

Persona is a film which has remained a favourite of mine and one which I take something
new from every time I watch it. If you like your films dense, beautiful and
atmospheric, I urge you to watch it.

Also recommended from Sweden:

Any other Bergman film

Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor, You the Living)

Lukas Moodysson (Lilja 4-Ever, Show Me Love)

Tomas Alfredson  (Let The Right One In)

Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage)

Still from Ingmar Bergman's Persona

Simon Brand

Image credit - quicheisinsane

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