For the uninitiated, it is important to approach this 1966 Ingmar Bergman film with patience. “Persona” begins with a jarring and often violent montage of seemingly disconnected images (including an erect penis that was edited out of the American version for many years) – the full impact and true depth of this sequence only becomes apparent as the story unwinds.
And what a story! The celebrated theatrical actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann in her first Bergman film) is curiously rendered mute, even though a medical examination determines that she is in fine physical and emotional health. Her doctor generously provides Elisabet with access to a cottage in a remote seaside village, with the young nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) assigned to provide care. The chatty, insecure and eager-to-please Alma appears to be the polar opposite of silent, stately and enigmatic Elisabet. Alma fills the time with a seemingly endless talk about her life, going beyond the benign complaints of her nursing work and upcoming marriage to deeply intense recollections of sexual encounters and an abortion. Through the discovery of Elisabet’s letters and the endless stretch of time in their seaside isolation, Alma begins to find an emotional overlap with Elisabet that becomes more than a little eerie.
For many years, “Persona” has brought forth a wave of different and intriguing interpretations. One could say that all of these are correct. This is the ultimate celluloid Rorschach test, where the production refuses to offer a straightforward solution to the maze of thorny challenges. The now-legendary scene compositions of Ullmann and Andersson in extraordinarily posed double close-ups could suggest anything from a melding of personalities to a sensitive Sapphic coupling to a savvy way of filling the screen in a dialogue-driven film with relatively little physical action.
This new Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack from The Criterion Collection is a work digital restoration magic – the full power of Sven Nykvist’s harshly effective black-and-white cinematography is brilliantly displayed in with crisp detail that was never evident in earlier VHS and DVD releases. Plus, there is a new Swedish-to-English translation that restores several once-controversial dialogue passages that were clumsily changed to less provocative palaver when the film first arrived in American theaters. Thus, “Persona” can finally be enjoyed in the manner that its creator truly intended.