Tuesday, 15 November 2011

#1 Sweden – Persona (1966)

This review marks the first of many to come. I have set myself an aim to watch and review a film from as many countries as possible for the St. Andrews Award and my own pleasure. The initial target is fifty, but that may increase depending on how I feel.

Why I chose this: Tracing my love for foreign, artistic and generally weird films back to one picture leads me to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. I took this out of the University library on a whim after an online recommendation and was awestruck from the initial montage. It seems a perfect choice for my first review, so here commences my epic journey around the world of film.

Bergman has made a great number of influential, complex and beautiful films, but Persona stands among the most singular of his works. It concerns Elizabeth Vogler (the incomparable Liv Ullman), a stage actress who suddenly turns mute during a performance. She is committed to a hospital, where a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is put in charge of her. When they are sent away for a respite at a secluded summer house by the beach, Alma confides all her cares and fears to Elizabeth and their identities become blurred.

The film – as most created by Bergman – is less about the story and more about the questions which it asks and the answers which it gives (or doesn’t give). The explorations of identity, motherhood, art and the human psyche are deep and complex, requiring multiple viewings to truly appreciate.

If philosophical musings aren’t your cup of tea, then the film can simply be experienced passively as a work of art. The cinematography of frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist is breathtakingly beautiful; he captures every expression on the actresses faces perfectly and composes each frame with the skill of a master artist. The lighting at once seems natural and dreamlike. This is particularly notable in a scene near the beginning of the film where Elizabeth’s face as she lays on her bed slowly darkens as light leaves the room. The shot is both beautiful and terrifying.

Bergman has a knack of coaxing the best possible performances from his cast and this skill is displayed to its full power here. Alma seems completely open, innocent and full of vitality. As the film climaxes however, we witness a venomous, grudging side of her. Bibi Andersson plays both of these parts perfectly; exposing an almost childish naivety with animalistic reactions to hurt and betrayal. Liv Ullman is silent for almost the whole film, but gets across more
emotions than most could dream of with just her face.

Persona is a film which has remained a favourite of mine and one which I take something new from every time I watch it. If you like your films dense, beautiful and atmospheric, I urge you to watch it.

Also recommended from Sweden:
Any other Bergman film
Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor, You the Living)
Lukas Moodysson (Lilja 4-Ever, Show Me Love)
Tomas Alfredson  (Let The Right One In)
Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage)

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