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Dhaka Tribune

Persona

An investigation into hope and despair

Update : 17 May 2023, 11:30 AM

“Isn't art always, to a certain extent, therapy for the artist?”- Ingmar Bergman.

Bergman made cinema as a cathartic outlet for confronting his inner demons, conflicts, and the pervasive existential anguish that permeated his entire existence. In each of his films, you can feel the presence of Bergman's psyche -- the intricate conflicts of his thoughts and morality, an unyielding anxiety that he claimed was his best friend, and an overwhelming guilt that consumed and plagued him relentlessly throughout his lifetime.

The film, Persona, will not put you through sheer psychological pain like Cries and Whispers(1972), or thrust you into a profound existential crisis like Wild Strawberries(1957). Instead, it's more like a journey on a boat hurtling towards a swirling whirlpool, pulling you deeper and deeper into the minds of the two protagonists -- Alma and Elisabet. 

The meaning of the title, Persona, prepares you for what's to come. And The film isn't bewildering or obscure, although the opening sequence starts with a montage of disturbing imagery that might evoke such a sensation. I think the imagery is there to set the viewer in the mood, as if a mental cleanse that helps them let go of whatever their previous emotions and prepares them for what lies ahead. 

The sequence starts with a very close-up shot of an elderly woman's face, allowing one to count the wrinkles of her face. It appears that she's lying on a hospital bed, presumably dead, and another old man is seen in a similar setting. It seems to me that the two individuals are Bergman's departed parents, who had the most profound influence on him, by shaping his childhood, and opening the gates to the road that led him to become the artist he is now. Naturally, I feel, all of our lives are also shaped in a similar way by our parents, and childhood.

Then we see a slender young boy, reading a book, evidently depicting young Bergman, moving his hands slowly over a glass partition. Behind it, the face of Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) appears and then slowly morphs into the face of Elisabet (Liv Ulman). These initial scenes, in my perception, are the director's way of conveying that he is part of his art, and invites the viewer on a journey into the deepest part of the two women's minds. 

Some readers might raise objections, questioning, "How could Bergman, being a man himself, audaciously delve into the realms of women's psychology?". And your concern is completely valid. Given the substantial disparities in the societal roles of men and women, most men are unable to fully comprehend what challenges and sufferings women have to face throughout their lives, solely for their gender. However, I believe Bergman strongly empathized with the pain and suffering of the women he met throughout his lifetime, given his own profound struggle with a lot of mental afflictions. Women are the central characters in the majority of his films, who invariably suffer from deep-rooted mental trauma, abuse, anxiety, existential crises, and a cycle of pain that never ends. 

It is impossible to quantify whether women endure more suffering than men in society. However, with my limited understanding of people, I perceive that the suffering of women in all societies is ceaseless and burdensome, to such a level that they spend their entire lives coping with the pain while suppressing their innate desire to escape the trauma and abuse. The characters depicted in “Persona” are no exceptions to this condition. 

We first meet the doctor describing to sister Alma the condition of Elisabet, the patient she was hired to take care of. The doctor informs Alma that Elisabet, an actress with a child and a husband, is sound both mentally and physically. However, she has consciously decided to stop speaking entirely and isolate herself from the outside world. Alma finds herself uncertain about how to handle such a patient, and feels inadequate due to her limited life experience. 

Alma, seemingly content, recently engaged, and envisioning a future with her husband, finds herself faced with Elisabet, her patient, who is evidently burdened by some severe mental pain due to which she had consciously taken such a decision. Alma, in her earnestness, shares the stories of her life, her plans for the future, and yearns to hear Elisabet's own tale. But Elisabet is stubborn, and does not verbally reply to Alma, only reacts with facial expressions. However, Elisabet is not totally cold and indifferent to everything. When confronted with the news of the monk who set himself on fire, as a protest against the Vietnam war, she seems to be horrified just like a normal human being. 

After a few days in the hospital, the doctor suggests to Alma that being stuck in a hospital cabin is not helping anyone, so Alma and Elisabeth should move to her summer house. The rest of the film unfolds following the events of the lives of the two women in the summer house.  

In my perception, Alma and Elisabet, despite coming from disparate social backgrounds -- one being a nurse, and the other an actress -- represent the inexhaustible conflict that mirrors the duality within a single psyche. Alma embodies the part of the mind that is perpetually searching for hope, tirelessly seeking purpose and rejecting the notion that nothing matters and we are all here to suffer. Elisabet stands as her stark antithesis. Plagued by immense guilt and anguish, she sees life as a relentless struggle, where enduring suffering knows no end and offers no relief. Even though Elisabet speaks very little throughout the film, we somehow gain insight into Elisabet's thoughts and emotions through Alma's eyes. Liv Ullmann, in her portrayal of Elisabet, manages to convey a multitude of emotions and thoughts without uttering a single word. 

Each of their conversations, with Alma doing most of the talking while Elisabet listens and reacts, unveils profound aspects of their characters. At one point, Alma reads a passage from her book to Elisabet: “All the anxiety we carry within us, all our thwarted dreams, the inexplicable cruelty, our fear of extinction, the painful insight into our earthly condition have slowly crystallized our hope for an other-worldly salvation. The tremendous cry of our faith and doubt against the darkness and silence is the most terrifying proof of our abandonment and our unuttered knowledge.” Alma asks Elisabet if she agrees with the author. Elisabet nods in agreement but Alma disagrees. 

Both of the women see their own reflections in the other, as if they are each other's mirrors. As the film unfolds, the women also discover their own selves. The solitude of the summer house provides an opportunity for both Alma and Elisabet to contemplate and reflect on their own lives.   Alma reveals her guilty conscience to Elisabet, admitting to an affair she had with a much younger boy, but confessing that she had never experienced such sexual ecstasy in her life after that. She also reveals that she goes on about her life without being completely sure of everything, without any true ambition, without realizing what real love feels like, but the pain she endures is the most real feeling to her. 

Elisabet doesn't tell anything about herself to anyone. But the other two women -- the doctor and the nurse Alma -- empathize with her pain. Alma takes her time to explore Elisabet's psyche in the summer house, but the doctor seems to know what Elisabet feels from the start. In the hospital, the doctor told Elisabet that she understands Elisabet's pain, how she feels every moment of her life is like playing a role, how she is always forced to wear masks to hide her true self, how the unbearable pain of such a life has caused her to take such a decision. Some even deeper truths about Elisabet, the roots of her misery, are revealed in a powerful and Bergmanian dream sequence. 

Despite Alma's earnest attempts to alleviate Elisabet's suffering, she finds herself powerless against the profound depths of Elisabet's agony. Alma slowly becomes consumed by a pervasive sense of powerlessness coupled with a growing disdain for Elisabet's unwavering mental fortitude. But she is the kind of person who can still go on about her life, putting on a facade of happiness and diverting her attention from the harsh realities that surround her.

We never see what happens to their lives after they leave the summer house, and perhaps that is for us to wonder.  In the aftermath of every Bergman film, I find myself in a state of existential crisis and self-reflection, unlike anything I have experienced or read in my life. And I am not sure what to feel, or how I feel, but just like Alma, I know the pain is real.

Samiul Ehsan Shafin is a freelance contributor. 

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