Monday, November 21, 2016

The Silent and Absurd: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona by Erica Gaeta

If one thinks about it, the human condition is quite absurd. Everyone on the planet is different in every way imaginable. We all also tend to go through stages as we grow up to be independent, intellectual, free thinkers. First, we as children learn basic functions to speak and live in a society. Then we start to consider our place in the universe and the value of life. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, environmentally, we grow and discover. We all develop our own coping mechanisms throughout life, whether consciously or not, and that is where psychological and philosophical principles come in. Absurdism is a school of thought in which our existence is questioned and one is forced to wonder what is the point of everything. The film Persona beautifully and mysteriously captures the essence of these ideas while leaving viewers unsure of what they just watched. Director Ingmar Bergman uses brilliant visuals and symbolism in order to pose such deeply rooted questions. When faced with the doubt of living a meaningful life, the world becomes much darker and reality starts to fade into the abyss.

Much of Persona’s cinematography is strange and intriguing. Shots are simply black and white, but quite untraditional in that they are combined with a quiet slow moving style to create mystery. In the opening of the film, viewers see a collection of juxtaposed scenes with the edges of the filmstrip showing, representing this piece literally for what it is. As viewers, we are forced to look at the medium itself, raw and unmasked: a traditional film reel projection. The screen quickly fades to a young boy waking up and touching a large screen of a woman’s face (Bergman, 5 min. 34 sec.). One could interpret that the boy featured in the beginning ends up being Elisabet’s deformed son who never knew his mother for who she was and only recognized her face. He very much symbolizes naivetĂ©, uncertainty, confusion, and even ignorance in life. Later, viewers are taken into the story of actress Elisabet Vogler, nurse Alma, and how they feed off of each other’s persona. As the film progresses, we discover that Alma is Elisabet’s assigned nurse due to a strange unexplained phenomenon. The actress froze on stage during a performance and never spoke again after that. It becomes evident that her reasoning for being mute is very much motivated by discontent with living an unhappy, fictitious life.

Elisabet’s eyes were somehow opened during her performance to the unfortunate reality of humanity; no one is truly oneself. Much of life is a show; it’s phony, but being silent allows one to sit back and observe without putting on a mask. In a press conference about the film at the time of shooting, director Bergman explained, “Persona is the Latin name for the face masks worn by actors in antiquity… the film will be about people's masks and attitudes” (Bergman). Some individuals reach a point in their lives where they stop and question why they conform to society, what they are even living for, and come to the realization that they will most likely never find out. French philosopher Albert Camus states: “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (Camus). In Camus’s profound essay on the subject, The Myth of Sisyphus, he discusses how when one comes to this realization there are ultimately three outcomes: suicide, a leap of faith, or acceptance. In Persona, we see that Elisabet has neither accepted nor denied this realization about an uncertain life purpose, but she is too scared and unwilling to take her own life. This leaves her with a leap of faith to do something drastic and daring; she stops talking. 

The silence of the unknown can be quite eerie. I’d say that many thought processes in the minds of everyday people are less than significant in subject matter. Most can’t help but get caught up in the superficial, mundane struggles of the human condition day to day and purposefully deter from thinking about what they don’t know or can’t control. It is scary and upsetting to some; however, daringly mindful people ponder what the point of their existence is, and ask themselves if they are proud of the life they are living. For example, consider this contemporary artist statement: “Some people are afraid of the unknown or infinity, but I embrace the idea that it is all around me and everyone else in the world. Getting people to also embrace this idea of endless possibility is usually the point I try to get across in [my work]…there is infinity in imagination, and a single thought could create an endless fractal in one’s own mind” (Donahue).

This is exactly what Elisabet Vogler was blind to in the film; the beauty of the unknown and the endless possibilities in life. As soon as Ms. Vogler realized she was not making any decisions herself, she had no control over her destiny.  She was living a life of endless uncertainty and unhappiness,  so she made the decision not to speak. She became an observer and chose to no longer participate in the game of life. What she clearly had failed to consider was that, “The freedom of man is… established in man's natural ability and opportunity to create his own meaning and purpose, to decide himself. [One] becomes the most precious unit of the existence, as he represents a set of unique ideals that can be characterized as an entire universe by itself” (Camus). Fear of the unknown is very real, but blocking oneself off from communication with others is not the answer. It is nearly impossible to associate with anyone who decides to respond to their discontent like this, which becomes clear through the development of nurse Alma’s character. Throughout the film she opens up increasingly to Elisabet at the shore house to pass the time and fill the silence. Eventually, Alma grows frustrated, small incidents occur, and a roll reversal emerges as Alma loses her sanity and control of her emotions.

So many people trap themselves in a box of close mindedness and ignorance. It is scary to consider reality and the unknown, but accepting it is much better than closing our minds to it. In Persona Elisabet was so wrapped up in fame and superficial decisions motivated by others that her personality and purpose got lost in playing roles. Although this is one of an infinite amount of interpretations for the film because of its ambiguity, it could be quite plausible from a philosophical and psychological perspective. No matter how one views this film, the visual artistic direction beautifully reflects a tragic story of someone who has lost her persona.

Author Erica Gaeta

Works Cited

"Absurdism." - New World Encyclopedia. MediaWiki, n.d. Web. 9 May 2016. <>.

Bergman, Ingmar. "Persona." Hulu. 1966 Svensk Filmindustri, 1 Jan. 1966. Web. 4 May 2016. <>.

Bergman, Stiftelsen Ingmar. "Persona." Ingmar Bergman. Stiftelsen Ingmar Bergman, 8 Oct. 1966. Web. 5 May 2016. <>.

Crowther, Bosley. "Persona." The New York Times. 2016 The New York Times Company, 7 Mar. 1967. Web. 9 May 2016. <>.

Ebert, Roger. "Persona Movie Review & Film Summary (1967) | Roger Ebert." All Content. Ebert Digital LLC, 7 Jan. 2001. Web. 9 May 2016. <>.

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