I have seen movies about filmmaking and I have seen movies about movies themselves, but Ingmar Bergman's Persona is something altogether different: a movie that reminds you it's a movie. Now, I don't mean fourth-wall breaking winks to the audience or asides, but a systematic reminder through daring and unexpected shots that make sure we are always aware that the film isn't "real." In that respect it follows more in line with the cinema of the French New Wave, but even then it doesn't quite fit; New Wave directors expressed their joy of filmmaking in their work, but Persona uses self-reference and breaking narrative to make the grandest of all meta-statements on both the cinema and human life.
The film opens on a purely black screen. Slowly, blinding white fills the screen as eerie music blares. Random shots of everything from covered corpses to a few frames of an erect penis flash briefly amidst the white light. Short scenes of old silent films pop up on screen. We then cut to stark and unsettling images of faces, that Bergman trademark close-up, before settling briefly on a boy who tries to reach out to a distorted image of a woman. At last, nearly five minutes in, the title cards appear.
Then we shift to a nurse, Sister Alma, who arrives at the hospital to learn that she has been placed in charge of Elisabet Volger, a famous actress who stopped speaking in the middle of a performance one day and never started again. For three months she's stayed in bed, awake by unmoving. The head nurse suggest Alma return the actress to her summer home and to stay with her there for possible recuperation, and the two move in together for a few months.
At first Alma speaks only of herself. She gives up expecting her charge to speak to her, so she fills the void. At first she prattles about minor things, but slowly she comes to see Elisabet almost as a wall, or a diary. She does not respond; therefore she she cannot pass judgment. One night, Elisabet sits so still she seems almost a painting as Alma recounts her infidelity and how, as a teenager, she and a friend engaged in an orgy with two boys they'd never met. She describes the sexual bliss of it all, only to remember with grief that she had to later get an abortion because of it. Elisabet takes this all in and comforts the now-sobbing girl.
Then something strange happens; Alma stumbles upon a letter from Elisabet to her husband, and reads it only to discover that the actress told him of all the "sins" she confessed. Suddenly, Bergman pulls more chicanery, making it look like frames got stuck in the projector a caught fire, then sending us back to the silent clowns. The film kicks back in, but something has drastically changed...
Elisabet's husband arrives, but he speaks to Alma, not his wife. Yet he speaks to her as Elisabet; at first she points out the error, then she finds herself replying as Elisabet. It leads to an existential crisis, as Alma seems to lose herself before she finally can take no more and begins to slap Elisabet repeatedly. Then Bergman throws up one of the most shocking images I've ever seen: he superimposes the faces of the two actresses over each other where half of their faces make up one whole, and we finally learn the truth: Alma is Elisabet. I hope Chuck Palahniuk sent in a royalty check when he wrote Fight Club.
A persona is defined as "a social role or character played by an actor," and Alma is a role played by the actress, only within her mind. This revelation sheds Bergman's visual tricks in a whole new light: he's using meta-cinema to move the movie outside of the confines of film. It's the old Shakespearean nugget "all the world's a stage" pushed to its most perverse and cynical extent: in the end, everyone plays a role, and we wear masks not over our true selves, but over nothingness. Man can never know himself, and it's futile to try.
That futility may have led Elisabet to her crisis; we don't know what caused her silence for sure, but later we see her watching news reports of the war in Vietnam and monks immolating themselves, and she cannot even voice her horror. At another point she gazes at photos of Jewish families led out of their homes by German guards, and the feeling returns. She turned to silence in an attempt to cut herself off from the world and to gaze within herself, and when she found nothing she created Alma.
Her story also works on the metaphorical level: Bergman funneled his fears and incomprehension of nuclear war and the Holocaust into the spiritual despair of Through a Glass Darkly, and here the artist expresses his feelings of impotence and inadequacy when it comes to dealing with such subjects. Bergman never was a political filmmaker, so he looks for the answers in the faces of his actors. He, along with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, really took the idea of the close-up far beyond anything ever seen before, and he pours over their starkly contrasted faces for answers he knows he cannot get. Rarely does he move away from their faces, capturing only the rocky landscape that symbolizes the desolation of the human condition. Even his beautiful tracking shot across the beach pauses for some close-ups.
I cannot possibly claim to understand everything Persona has to offer on the basis of a single viewing. Hell, I don't think I could ever know everything there is to get about it. I don't even think Bergman could possibly have conceived of all the psychological quandaries presented in the film's 83 minutes. What I can say is this is without a doubt one of the ten most perfectly crafted films I've ever seen. If Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris took man to the end of the universe to confront himself, Bergman was waiting to tell him not to bother.
Bergman later said of this film and Cries and Whispers, "I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover." I submit that he not only went as far as he could go, but he took cinema to its brink with him. After making an expressionist masterpiece on the subject of God's absence (The Seventh Seal) and an entire trilogy on the matter, he finally realized that Man is his own God, as the final shots of the film are of Bergman himself zooming in on his actress. Plenty of people have used cinema to teach us lessons on real life, but Bergman used the crushing cynicism of reality to break cinema in two.