Silent Beauty marks Bergman's hauting Persona
10-250, 7:30 p.m.By Stephen Brophy
Ingmar Bergman uses all sorts of devices to distance us from the story he tells in Persona. But we are still drawn in, mystified and then horrified at this tale of emotional possession told as if it were a dream. The narrative proceeds so calmly and the mood seems so tranquil that it is hard for us to recognize that we are watching what amounts to a vampire taking her victim.
The story concerns an actress, played by Liv Ullman, who decides to stop talking. This seems to be caused by her distress over the cruelty of the world - as expressed in television coverage of things like the Vietnam War - but it could also reflect her guilt over her remote relationship with her husband and young son. From her austere hospital room she is sent to a vacation home on a rocky seashore, where she is attended by a perky young nurse, played by Bibi Andersson.
It might seem awkward to tell a story so tightly focused on two characters, one of whom doesn't speak. But Bergman uses these silences as expertly as he uses the bright sunlight of his location to gradually expose how the actress takes over the nurse's spirit. As the nurse chatters on about her fiance and the boyfriends of past summers, the actress watches and listens with a seemingly sympathetic expression. Using tight close-ups of the two faces, the director shows us the gradual merging of the two personalities, and the disappearance of the younger woman's being into the triumphant persona of her patient.
Words do not suffice to describe the poetry of images Bergman has created to tell his story. Most of the words in the movie are just idle chatter. He primes us from the beginning to pay attention to his pictures by starting with an abstract assemblage of shots that includes scenes of film passing through a projector. We are reminded that what we are watching is not reality, but an artist's reconstruction of it.
But this does nothing to lessen the cumulative power of the art. Bergman is noted for his dissections of the emptiness of modern life, his explorations of the "silence of God." Many of his stories are assumed to have autobiographical significance, to analyze weaknesses he finds in his own character. In Persona, Bergman looks at artists' inherent exploitation, and creates a masterpiece in the process.