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August 02, 2005

Persona

Ingmar Bergman - 1966
MGM Region 1 DVD

Today's poll at the Internet Movie Data Base was a vote for the greatest living director. The poll was inspired by Roger Ebert's declaration, following the release of his new film, Saraband, that Bergman is the best director alive. As far as the imdb.com voters are concerned, Bergman runs a distant third behind Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese. I have to wonder how many people who voted for Bergman did so on the basis of actually seeing his films, or based on his reputation. It's been over thirty years since the release of Cries and Whispers, Bergman's most financially successful film in the U.S. Considering that Bergman declared himself retired from directing films at the time that Spielberg and George Lucas were ascendant, I have to ask how meaningful he is to a younger generation of film goers.

The poll spurred me to see the one Bergman film I currently have in my DVD collection. The working title was Kinematografi which seems very fitting. More than anything, I think Persona is Bergman's meditation on filmmaking. From the images of the projector and film at the beginning to the fade out of the projector carbon at the end, the viewer is always reminded that a film is being viewed. Some of the shock value of images of film ripped or burned in the projector is lost seeing the film as a DVD rather than projected on a theater screen. Still, there is something new to glean from seeing Persona again.

One thing different about seeing Persona on DVD is that I chose the English language option. I probably will never do that again. The actress who dubbed Bibi Andersson had too high a voice, almost like Jennifer Tilly. I had wished that Andersson had dubbed her own voice. Her English was good enough to make her American film debut in Duel at Diablo, also in 1966. Andersson also starred in Bergman's first English language film, The Touch, in 1971. I watched the film dubbed in order to see all of Bergman's images without the distraction of subtitles. I felt like I was a little more conscious of the interplay between Andersson and Liv Ullman seeing the entire frame rather than looking at the bottom to read the dialogue.

In having the film's narrative be about an actress who chooses to be mute, Bergman has Ullman personify the power of the image. Ullman is challenged, primarily by Andersson as to if her silence and other actions are genuine or are manifestations of acting. Ullman's actress challenges the gap between her stage image and her sense of self. Stage and screen imagery is challenged by the reality of documented images of war - a monk burning himself in Viet Nam, and Jews rounded up by Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto. Andersson voices her admiration for Ullman's devotion to acting while Bergman seems to be questioning the value of filmmaking in the face of much greater human suffering.

I have seen Persona at least three times. Almost forty years old, this film is still vital for me. Perhaps because of the sparse settings of the interiors, and the rock and shrub exteriors of Faro, Persona does not look moored to a specific time or place. Perhaps Bergman's own feelings about Persona are best:
"At some time or another, I said that Persona saved my life - that is not exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. Today I feel that in Persona, and later in Cries and Whispers, I had go as far as I could go. And that in these two, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover."

Posted by peter at August 2, 2005 07:30 PM