Monday, March 22, 2010
A film unwinds and sputters amidst whines and screeches of a machine. The carbon arc of the equipment bursts into incandescence and then dies into darkness. A spider crawling over the screen. Blood streaks out as a spike is driven into a palm. A monk in flames. A white screen. A rabbit is disemboweled. Bodies in a mortuary. A thin boy of ten or so tries to touch and feel the image of a woman separated from him by a transparent barrier. This montage of a few minutes leads us to the titles.
Elizabeth (Liv Ullman) is a successful actress of around thirty five who in the midst of a performance of Elektra suddenly stops speaking and thereafter becomes completely silent to the point she is hospitalized and put under the care of twenty five year nurse Alma (Bibi Anderson). The rest of the film is about the relationship of these two classically beautiful women, the one in her chosen muteness, the other loquacious.
This is pure cinema, where the form supersedes the substance. Every black and white frame of the film is a model of austere yet lustrous composition. The movie glows with with a battle of light and shadow. The marble forms and intense yet controlled performances of the two actresses encase the inner tumult, which ts petty more than sublime. It's a film about loneliness and the failure of inter-humaneness-- failure to connect-- like the little boy vainly trying to touch the woman behind the transparent barrier. An essay on solitude and existence. On the poverty behind the plenitude.
Nurse and patient retreat to a wave lapped sea side dwelling to work out an uneventful yet gripping drama of love, need and hate.. The vast expanses of land, water and sky are an apt metaphor for the infinite mystery of the inner universe. The self chosen and self enforced silence of the older woman, her apathy, indifference and occasional tenderness are set against the vulnerability and outbursts of anger of the nurse. Both the women have failed in different ways in the most fundamental other-centric human role of motherhood.
Somewhere in the background are the larger landscapes of wars and holocausts. A monk reduces to cinders. The Jewish boy in the beret is led away by the militia.. Bergman stated his failure to respond to mega tragedies. Elizabeth paces her room at night as sounds of the screaming bombers emerge from the TV.
Alma is furious and humiliated when she pries into a letter describing her as an object of study. She knowingly allows the actress to injure her foot on a shard, and the actress knows that she knows. Alma threatens Elizabeth with a saucepan of boiling water, forcing her to scream out, "Don't!" The fear of death and the instinct for survival go far deeper than our vanities. As was said "The most terrible things in the world are the pain of fire, the flashing of swords and the shadow of death. Even horses and cattle fear death, how much more those in their prime."
This is a film sparse and economical to the bone, a work of serene architecture. To interpret is demeaning to the film as to oneself. It is complete and round, maybe cuboid, a thing of symmetry, a film within a film within a film.
Complete to the point that it reveals no secret, which is as it should be, since neither does life.
At last Elizabeth breaks her silence as Alma asks her to repeat, "Nothing." It is the zero which is the beginning of everything.
What I can say for sure is that it's a movie, which like the carbon arc in the prelude, etches and engraves itself. I regretted having to depend on subtitles, to miss looking at the grains of the skin, to miss the nuances and cadence of script. The second time around, I allowed myself to ignore the subtitles, to focus on the marvelous stream of facial expressions. Bergman has famously remarked to the effect that cinema is all about the human face and it's changing expressions.
Persona on Bergman Foundation Site, Susan Sontag on Persona, Bergman and philosophy