I always thought great artists felt great compassion for other people. That they created from a sense of great sympathy and a need to help. That was stupid of me. You've used me.
While the classic 1966 film Persona has several philosophical deep dives into duality, identity, motherhood, and so on, the above quote by actress Bibi Andersson, in the role of Sister Alma who is caring for a mute actress (Played by Liv Ullmann) at a seaside cottage, seems to be the most simple bridging quote between the seemingly simply surface story and the bottomless thematic discovery the film offers to any willing audience member. A journey that director Ingmar Bergman said he feels his audience should draw their own conclusions from, refusing to give his ideas on what he thought the film was about when he made it. He added in that same interview that he hoped the film would be felt rather than understood.
Indeed, emotions power the film's simple premise through Andersson and Ullmann's emotional states, the dialogue often serving as simple bread crumbs that leads the audience to dizzying (Quite literally dizzying) visual moments that offer far more in meaning than anything either of the two actresses could say. Ullmann's character Elisabet Vogler, who has suffered a breakdown, and enjoys having control over the more compassionate nurse that Alma is. She sees her time with Alma almost as a character study for a role she hopes to play. And as the story goes, Elisabet is revealed to have a hollow existence outside of her performances on stage. Alma, while her character is set to be married and looks forward to having children, also is an awe and envy of Elisabet's supposed perfect existence. The quote mentioned sums up her initial value of the actress as someone who truly encapsulates the humanity of the world which Alma herself seems determined to possess as she cares for Elisabet. It's almost as if Alma can heal this source of humanity she can heal anyone.
But that's only one interpretation and the film has often been described as the "Mount Everest" of critical analysis of cinema. Where you could have one idea of the film's meaning, have an idea that is completely counter to your initial one, and both could be right. Bergman seems determined for this, conveying images without words, often flashes and montages of seemingly unconnected ideas. Yet, while many directors would do this almost as a distraction from a story, his use of random imagery seem so highly focused and offers threads to the audience that it invites them to look into the film's meaning. A true example of interactive cinema without the fancy bells and whistles of 3-D images that jump out at you or 4-D seats that rumble to make you feel you're right in the middle of a grand battle.
Rather, Bergman let's the Hitchcock method do it's work. He forces the audience to use their own imagination with his film serving as a foundation to that imagination. And thus the themes of the movie are endless, especially as the film goes and Bergman gets more daring with the cinematography, at points potentially suggesting that the entire set of events isn't even real (And one or both of the characters are simply just that. Characters being analyzed by the audience). So, what is to be made from this movie? Is it a story about an actress trying to fill a void of her existence with a genuine person around her? Is it is a nurse using the actress to feel her own self-worth as a healer and a woman? Is the brief snippets at the beginning and the end of the film, which centers on a boy sitting at the morgue staring at a blurry image (Which could be either of the lead actresses), implying the entire story is simply an analysis? Or are the two female leads the same person, fractured and at conflict with herself?
That is the true joy of watching Persona. As composer Lars Johan Werle startles you with his jolts of music, as Ulla Ryghe's editing confuses you or disorients you, or as Sven Nykvist's cinematography forces you to stare at a single image, frozen in time to analyze, you the audience are being provoked. Startled. Aroused. And this is Bergman's true hope of the movie, even to this day. That you will watch this film and explore the endless complexity of the soul and the psyche. Who are you? To others? To yourself? You might have an answer for one or all these questions, but as Bergman seems to indicate...the answer may never be enough.
All films that carry an allegory are intentionally not completely definable. Thus they cannot be defined as perfect.