Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Persona is brilliant cinematic philosophy. Elisabet, an actress, becomes confused during a performance and falls silent. Her psychiatrist gives this diagnosis: She got tired of playing roles, putting on masks, and knew that every word she spoke involved some sort of performance. So she stopped speaking. But the psychiatrist also discerns that her silence is also a performance, and urges her to play it for all its worth and then move on to another role.
Sister Alma, a young nurse, takes care of Elisabet at a seaside cottage. Sharing days with the utterly silent Elisabet, she finds herself chattering on and on, revealing her most shameful secrets. Elisabet says nothing. Alma becomes desperate for something, a single word, a minute of conversation. She has given herself, and received nothing in return, and begins to go crazy. (Can a gift be given?) Only when, during a violent argument, Alma threatens to throw boiling water on her does Elisabet speak. Fear forces her out from behind the mask.
Several points from this very rich film:
First, Bergman is playing with the word of his title. Persona means both a role, but also evokes “person” and “personal” in the strong sense - who we really are. But who is Elisabet, really? She retreats from roles into what her psychiatrist knows is just another role; she sheds the masks of the stage and of social theatrics, but throughout the movie her face becomes almost expressionless - a mask, the original meaning of “persona.”
That suggests, second, the aporia of human relationships. If Elisabet speaks, she employs a rhetoric, presents a face and plays a role; if she speaks, are her relationships relationships between herself and another, or between her projected “self” and the other? Yet, if she doesn’t speak, she reduces to a mask, and no relationship is possible. All relationships are relationships of veil to veil, mask to mask. Surely there’s something Trinitarian to say here.
Third, there’s an intriguing Girardian dimension to the film. When I first saw you, Alma says, I thought we looked alike; I could be you. As the film goes on, she does become Elisabet. She starts smoking, dresses like Elisabet, becomes silent. Mimesis, as always, leads to rivalry.
Finally, the film powerfully potrays the sheer power of silence. When first assigned to take care of Elisabet, Alma wonders to her supervisor if she is strong enough to handle a woman with the will power to refuse to talk. Her supervisor dismisses her worries, but she’s right. Someone who hears without being heard is just as powerful as the voyeur or the spy or the prison guard in the Panopticon who sees without being seen.