Ingmar Bergman’s Persona: the Soul and the Mask, cinema as a theatre

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No director has ever managed to deepen the human soul like Ingmar Bergman, the greatest Swedish director of all time and (with Robert Bresson and Federico Fellini) one of the three great modernist filmmakers of the ’50s-’60s, who opened the way for the nuclear bomb of the Nouvelle Vagues. His whole work is based on an essential metaphor: the cinema as a theatre, and it is not a case that in Persona (1966), surely his most famous and probably his most stylistically experimental film, everything starts from the theatre itself.

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Elisabeth (played by Liv Ullmann) is a theatrical actress who, during a show, suddenly stops acting, taken by an incredible desire of laughing. The doctor comes to understand that the patient’s dumbness is not given by a neurosis, but is a conscious choice, so the doctor decides to propose her spending a period of rest and recovery in her home by the sea (the wonderful island of Faro, where Bergman himself settled a few years earlier), flanked by the nurse Alma (played by Bibi Andersson). In this isolated environment, however, Alma will begin to confide totally herself to the perpetually silent Elisabeth, until it reaches a kind of fusion of personalities before and a strong clash then, which will eventually lead the two to divide from each other.

Obviously a synopsis of the plot can not make justice to such a film, which certainly does not seek its expression in the action, but in the perpetual analysis carried out by the camera on the faces of the protagonists: this is Bergman’s style, highlighted by the exceptional illumination of Sven Nykvist, the director of photography. His bright whites and blacks concentrate all the details of the framing on the investigation of the character’s faces, where effects of light and shadow draw the most inner emotions. The exaltation of faces also passes from a precise choice of construction: the scenography is essential, indoor, closed spaces with minimalist furniture and often simple backgrounds that contrast with the faces of the protagonists (except the few scenes shot outdoors, but they seem to aim at a Bazinian realism, at the slightest modification of reality before being filmed).

The analysis of the faces with fixed close-ups is a recurring stylistic figure of the Bergman’s cinema. Here, in a scene of Cries and Whispers (1972), we can see how the director uses the foreground both to affirm what the dialogues say (also they always very dense of existential meaning, as normal Bergman style), and to deny it. What is true, and what is false? Are the words of man true or so it is the image in the mirror of the woman? What is the real sense of reality?

how you have changed

As mentioned in the opening of the article, the great metaphor of Bergman’s cinema (including Persona) is the cinema as a theatre. The theatre has always been the real social art, the art that most of all can make the spectators understand the meaning of their actions, of their own being in the world. Since the advent of cinema, however, there have been in fact two arts with roughly the same goal (certainly we are leaving out all the drifts of the neo- and of the historical avant-gardes, the rebellion against the sense). According to Bergman, the stage of the theatre can represent the life of the men, and the same thing does the cinema, but thanks to its technological innovations the latter can show characters’ emotions more closely. If the theatre is therefore a metaphor of life, Elisabeth’s renunciation of acting, with an attached desire to laugh, is the metaphor of the renunciation of impersonating a part in her life, the renunciation to wear a mask in front of others, aware of the lack of sense, which generates the laugh.

Persona: Short Monologue

Muteness is therefore a rebellion to the bourgeois system, to the system of masks, with inspirations of pirandellian memory (the masks that we wear and that are imposed by the bourgeois society, opposed to the flow of life, which does not assert and crystallizes itself, flowing within us). But Bergman’s direct reference, more than Pirandello, is definitely Gustav Jung. The same title of the film refers to the psychoanalytical studies of the scholar, who believed that men possessed a Persona, that is an external mask with which they were shown to the world; and a Soul, that is the internal image.

When the Persona, or the mask of the two protagonists, begins to no longer acquire a distinctive trait (thanks to the light of Nykvist that blends the faces of Elisabeth and Alma), it is the Soul that comes out (often as a stream of consciousness, or of unconsciousness, unrestrained), a soul that hides secrets. If in fact Alma after various personal explosions with Elisabeth, comes to tell her a moment of total sexual perdition (a sexual group experience on a beach) whose effects she still feels on her psyche:

In the same way Elisabeth hides her thoughts about her motherhood, an unintended motherhood, which perhaps contributed to her present state, probably an escape from the figure of the mother-woman. A character no longer interpretable by the new woman of the twentieth century conscious of her rights and of gender equality (can the choice to use almost only female interpreters not be a revolutionary position?).

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The film burns on the face of Bibi Andersson.

In this perspective, the child of the prologue and of the epilogue would therefore be the son of the same Elisabeth, who fails to recognize his mother eve through glasses, since he has always seen only the person, the image, and never the soul. These are the words said by Alma to Elisabeth, discovering the unintended motherhood of the actress: it is the classic bergmanian dialogue that is full of significance, thanks to the close-ups, as in Cries and Whispers, in a continual affirmation and denial of what is said:

“The delivery was difficult and long. You were in agony for days. Finally the baby was delivered with forceps. You looked with disgust and terror at your squealing baby and whispered Can’t you die soon? Can’t you die? The boy screamed day and night. And you hated him. You were scared, you had a bad conscience. Finally the boy was taken care of by relatives and a nanny. You could get up from your sickbed and return to the theatre. But the suffering wasn’t over. The boy was gripped by a massive and unfathomable love for his mother. You defend yourself in despair. You feel you can’t return it. So you try, and you try… But there are only cruel and clumsy meetings between you. You can’t do it. You’re cold and indifferent. He looks at you. He loves you and he’s so gentle. You want to hit him because he doesn’t leave you alone. You think he’s disgusting with his thick mouth and ugly body. His moist and pleading eyes. He’s disgusting and you’re scared.

Elisabeth’s unwanted motherhood brings us back to the opening sequence of the film, the most experimental part of the work. In the beginning, a film that burns, then images follow without any apparent sense: skeletons that dance, a snapshot of a penis, a hand pierced by a nail. Bergman’s metaphor seems obvious: it is impossible to continue to narrate in a classical way a life that has now lost totally its meaning, in which images apparently with no meaning appear in front of, without being interpreted, without letting us understand about us. Among the various images, one, however, is particularly important: the hand pierced by a nail. How can we not, in fact, reconnect it in our collective imagination to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? The Death of God. The death of God by the hand of men. This is the other great topic of Bergman’s cinema, that is related to a world lacking in ideals, where a god driven by us has no intention to return.

The same image of the penis should not be ignored: Bergman said that he had been locked up by mistake in a morgue, when he was ten, and there he saw the uncovered coffin of a beautiful young woman. The author told that he had moved her dress, and that he almost touched her genitals. The passion and the death, at the same time: the penis and the death of God, everything seems to be connected, even more if we think about how the strict education of his father (a prostestant pastor) has marked Bergman, as he actually admitted.

And then there is the child and his dialogue to the audience. It is not the first time that Bergman used this technique: the first time was in his first successful film, Summer with Monica (1952), in which Harriet Andersson’s gaze, facing the chamber, totally hit Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague.

Ingmar Bergman / Summer with Monica;1953

With this sense of estrangement, the Swedish filmmaker wants to make us aware of our existence: at the very moment when a character looks towards us, the cinema deception is over, that character is actually turning to us (it is evident how Bergman takes this practice from the theatre itself). In the beginning of Persona, then, the whole mechanism is even more enriched of meanings: if we are identified with the image, with the Persona of the mother, then what are we, People or Souls? Do we also wear masks or are we really ourselves?


Creation of a story and then explosion of the film itself with the succession of a series of images without any apparent sense: creation of a metaphor and at the same time destruction of the sense of the metaphor itself. This is what Bergman does in Persona. Because the theatre and the cinema are metaphors of life, but the same life has no longer any meaning.


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