Cinema that defies or challenges convention; cinema that experiments boldly with purpose and poetry; with performance and possibility, can be moving and deeply affecting. Persona is a fine example of such cinema. Director Ingmar Bergman’s creation is acerbic and bittersweet, told with striking dialogue and flashes of visual brilliance. But Persona has been as chided as it was cheered, inviting a number of critics (then and through the years) to offer a collective yawn at the style and substance of Bergman’s filmic design.
Critical bemusement at Bergman’s anointing as cinematic genius often center on his affinity with the theater. These critical assaults tend to fail in understand the myriad expressions of cinema possible, and of Bergman’s ability to challenge in the cinematic medium; to explore with great sensitivity not only the dramatically rich subjects but the medium with which he is exploring and sharing them.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.40:1
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 23 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-rayFolding book inside sleeve
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 03/25/2014
The Production Rating: 5/5
“You could be me just like that...though your soul would be too big…”Persona opens with an avant-garde display of flashing images and of a young boy, unable to sleep, rising from his bed before approaching what we soon realize is the cinematic realm, immediately challenging the audience to follow as we transition between the realms. Here, Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse, tends to Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), a stage actress who for an unknown reasons is unable (or unwilling) to speak. To aid in her care, the hospital administrator offers her a cottage by the sea to rest and recovery. There the nurse Alma and Elisabet seep away the days, as Alma fills the silence of her voiceless patient’s presence with endless stories of herself and her life. She reveals secrets of her past; sensual stories of abandon, and regrets that weigh heavily on her behind her daily smiles and friendly conversation. And Elisabet still does not speak. Before their arrival at the peaceful cottage, Elisabet had paced her hospital room, unable to sleep, with the television lighting up the sterile walls with horrific images of war protesters self-immolating. The images stunned and terrified Elisabet as she paced her hospital room. The horrors of what she saw pushed her further into silence. But why did she not speak to begin with. An image of what we are told is Elizabet’s son causes anguish there too. But we are not given an answer. After some time at the cottage, Alma grows impatient, longing for there to be a word, even a single word, uttered by her patient. Then, a letter written by Elisabet that Alma discovers casts a shadow on who Elisabet is, and why she is there. It is a trigger of significance and the end of what was.
Director Ingmar Bergman, having been rapt with Pneumonia and then struck by debilitating bouts of “giddiness” as he described it, found his plans of making a film called The Cannibals sidelined, and, having watched nurses during a turn at the hospital examining each other’s hands, was inspired to the substances of Persona. A dark sided tale concerned outwardly with the psychology of two women who form the tumultuous dramatic center of the story. And by establishing a different relationship that the audience should have with his particular tale (and perhaps asking the audience to consider the relationship they have with all images), Bergman’s Persona offers a fascinating experiment in expressing the immutable relationship movie goers have with the images flashing across a projected screen. What lies in the ether between our lives and the lives flickering in that other world? It’s a marvelous thought to have been explored so boldly.
Directorially, Bergman affords a spare mise en scène to distinguish key moments – harkening to the simplicity of the stage – but not as a failure to transfer this peculiar and prevailing narrative to cinema, but rather as an element of breaking down the wall between cinema and reality. Bergman’s embrace of narrative discordance only serves to rapt us with mystification that demands we try to understand, interpret.
What each of us takes away from watching Persona is part of the grand achievement of film. Dissected and analyzed since its release in 1966, there are myriad perspectives on what Bergman sought to convey. The boy at the beginning (and end) of the film can be interpreted to be the son kept away from the love of his mother by the trap (or better, the lure) of the cinematic arts. He is both the core and the outsider to the lives of the two women whom we watch scratch away at their own facades. The two lives, each with a piece that the other cannot have (an ability to erase motherhood, or the ability to become a mother after an abortion), seem to duel onscreen with madness of passion.
The intimacy that forms between Alma and Elisabet; between nurse and patient, is so intense and personal at times that fundamentally we must consider that these are one and the same person. Two sides of the same personality. They are at least two possible outcomes of lives who could have been the same but for circumstance and decisions which molded them be quite different. Director Bergman plays with our perceptions of these two women, framing shots of Alma and Elisabet as one (consider the shot of Alma talking at the table, the camera moves in and what we see is Elizabet’s arm framed behind Alma’s head talking – two bodies uncomfortably merged to be one).
It also seems that we are offered a deconstruction of the images we project. The person we are and the person we show. Through lives of desperation, regret, abandon, and shame. Moments of insecurity, cruelty, coldness, warmth and indifference, we appear to be asked something of ourselves and our world. Supported by performances that transcend the screen, with Bibi Andersson’s Alma psychologically disintegrating with conviction, and Liv Ullmann’s Elizabet conveying reams with her silent expression. With only the briefest exception these two actresses drive every scene and are extraordinary.
Persona, then, offers powerful themes, but remains a film that invites the audience’s perception and interpretation of intent.
Criterion presents Persona in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. A new digital transfer created in 2K resolution from the 35mm original camera negative showcases the impressive imagery of Bergman’s work. A film frequently framed tightly on the actresses faces, the detail becomes an important and potent element in the story. And it is wonderfully detailed. The black and white image is filled with superb contrasts, and appropriate discreteness in the shades.
Video Rating: 5/5 3D Rating: NA
The image is remarkably clean; free of dust and other debris though there are one or two fleeting moments of very minor imperfections that remain. A grand looking disc.
Presented with just the Swedish LPCM monaural track, Persona’s audio is impeccable. Entirely free of issues (hiss, pops, unevenness), the soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 17.5mm magnetic track. Dialogue is quite warm given the source.
Audio Rating: 4.5/5
A new translation of the English subtitles has been provided.
Again, Criterion understands the potency of explorative special features and has assembled a collection that provides various viewpoints on the film and the legendary writer, director and auteur Bergman.
Special Features Rating: 4.5/5
New visual essay on the film’s prologue by Ingmar Bergman scholar Peter Cowie: A twenty minute visual essay concentrated on the first seven mibutes of the film.
New interviews with actor Liv Ullmann and filmmaker Paul Schrader: New interviews recorded in 2013
Excerpted archival interviews with Bergman, Ullmann, and actor Bibi Andersson: Interview from 1966 and another with Bergman from 1970
On-set footage, with audio commentary by Bergman historian Birgitta Steene: Silent footage, roughly 18 minutes worth, set to commentary by Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene.
Liv & Ingmar, a 2012 feature documentary directed by Dheeraj Akolkar: Shot in and around Ingmar Bergman’s home, this documentary is exclusively from the perspective for Liv Ullmann with whom Bergman held a 50-year working relationship and friendship.
Accompanying booklet featuring an intriguing (but short) essay from film scholar Thomas Elsaesser. Also included are excerpts two interviews. The first with taken from the 1970 book Bergman on Bergman, and the second from a1977 interview with Andersson.
Persona is near-perfect and exquisite cinema, constructed with focus and containing imagery that has become iconic (and critical to understanding what Bergman is conveying with the film). Beautiful performances exemplify the marvelous script so much that even the sharp poetry present in the dialogue is earned and earnest. With great intimacy, the camera absorbs the tender and turbulent drama while contrasting perspectives of humanities interminable cruelty with the pained compassion and separateness that others feel towards the pain of others. It is utterly fascinating and highly recommended.
Overall Rating: 5/5
Reviewed By: Neil Middlemiss
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