The film Persona, made by Ingmar Bergman, tells a story of an actress’s sudden refusal to speak. The nurse who is responsible for taking care of her cannot stand the silence and begins talking more and more at her, and end up pouring out her personal emotions to her silent listener. By the end of the story, the two characters are somehow connected through intense emotions and merge into one person.
As one of the greatest works by Ingmar Bergman, the film has deeply explored the topic of the agony of humans for the incapability of spiritual communication and its expressions. In addition to the great performances of the main actors, the way the film was shot was extremely groundbreaking and experimental. The director used different techniques of cinematography to help build up the characters, their interactions, as well as the theme of the film hidden behind. Using close-ups, long and short scenes, black and white, and aspect ratio and framing, the film becomes more emotionally appealing to the audience. As a movie from the 1960s, the sharpness of the image also shows the high level of expertise in the filmmakers.
There are multiple scenes in the film where close-ups and long shots are combined, to show the facial expressions and psychological activities of the characters. The shots are processed in a way that fits perfectly into the plot. In a way, whether an actor is good or not is clearly shown in filming close-up scenes, and even more so in the long shots. The zooming in of the lens serves as an amplifier. Most of the distractions in gone in the image so that the slightest facial expressions are captured.
If such shots are not handled with care, they can become a nauseous disaster. In this film, however, these shots have clearly shown the mental states of the actress, who suffers from aphasia. The silence of her further adds to amplify the intense emotions and suffering in her. It is noted that neither of the two characters wears makeup, this makes their expression even more genuine. The close-ups and long scenes have helped the director in exploring the meaning of life, as well as the dark, desperate sides of humanity.
Black and white is another important cinematographic element used by the director. Perhaps the film is in black and white only because of the limit in technology, but it also helped the film to express the emotions in the most direct, intense, and effective way. There is a sense of purity in the black and white pictures, while colored pictures tend to bring in distractions that are irrelevant to the theme. Elizabet in the film is a successful actress, but one day at the film site she finds herself no longer able to talk or act.
On her face, there shows expressions of doubt, anxiety, and sorrow, but at the same time she also becomes cold and distant to anyone around her. in contrast, the young nurse, Alma, has a pure, simple face, which stands for her innocence. The black and white pictures and the use of lighting give their figures a much stronger impression on the audience. Many of the struggles and conflicts between Elizabet and Alma is not on the physical level, but more in the mental state. Thus, the use of black and white creates a sense of isolation from reality.
The aspect ratio and framing for the film are 1.33, which was common in the year it was produced. Unlike the most popular widescreen pictures nowadays, this ratio helps stripe away the visual distractions, so that the characters, their faces, instead of the surrounding environment, stay as the focus. This element of cinematography here also becomes a part of the film language, since it helps portrait the different images and enhance the intensity of psychological activities.
When asked, what is wrong with Elizabet, the doctor says The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. Suddenly, Elizabet has discovered the truth of life: full of pain and suffering, without any hope. She struggles so much between her own nature, and what society wants of her, that she refuses to take on any role in the end. If she didn’t have to move or speak, she wouldn’t need to put on a mask that she resents.
Young Alma, on the other hand, is a firm believer in hope and meaning to life. Thus, conflicts are unavoidable between the two. Despite the similarity in their faces, the inner sides of the two form a clear contrast. For the two characters that are only seemingly close to each other, the frame of the picture acts almost like a cage for them, making the interactions between seeming “forced”. Thus, a sense of distrust between human beings is established.
There are some very short scenes, at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film. The content of the short scenes connects the three parts together into a whole. Unlike the long scenes which mainly focus on the facial expressions of the characters, the short ones are composed of intense or even shocking images. For example, the ones at the beginning use intensified lighting to raise the audience’s attention.
The subject of these scenes seems to be irrelevant to the film: a child wearing ghost costumes, a close-up on a genital organ, or killing a sheep. However, with these shots appearing not only at the beginning of the film but also in the middle, the director must want to use them to express something related to the theme. At the climax of the story, when Elizabet gets herself hurt, the plot is suddenly cut through by a repetition of the short scene in the beginning. When the main plot resumes, Elizabet is no longer injured.
The use of the short scenes adds to the drama of the film and makes the audience wonder why the film is structured like this. Perhaps this is a question that even the directors don’t have the answer to. The arrangements of these confusing shots can be interpreted in a thousand ways, and they may be right at the same time.
The theme of the film is the difficulty in communication between humans on a spiritual level. Life is full of disguise and it can become painful to maintain a fake image in front of people. Overall, the cinematography is considered the most distinctive component that made the film so successful in revealing its theme. Within cinematography, several elements have been discussed in this essay. The close-ups serve as amplifiers that intensified the expressions of the characters so that they can speak what they feel even when they are not.
The combination of long and short scenes is also effective in intensifying the conflicts and struggles of the characters: the latter focuses on bringing the audience within the personal distance of the actors, and the latter connects the whole film together to express the hidden message of the director.
The black and white image and the 1.33 aspect ratio are also helpful in stripping away the distractions and letting the audience focus on the tension, drama, and plot. At the end of the film, the faces of Elizabet and Alma merge into one, which becomes one of the most classic scenes in the history of cinematography. These elements have made the film not only a masterwork of the 60s but something worth watching for the centuries to come.