A nurse and her suddenly mute patient in Bergman’s hands becomes nothing less than a work of art.
Bergman’s Persona offers the bifocal pleasures and surprises of multilevel dramatic communication. It can be read, somewhat mystically, as a tale of the transposition of souls, or, more prosaically, it can be understood as demonstrating that muteness is a form of aggression, that a person capable of implacable silence can fracture and distort the personality of another who offers contact through speech. On other terms, the picture is at once relentlessly clinical and a figment of pure cinema—which latter reading Bergman encourages by introducing the work literally from within the projector, by equating dream with reality, past with present, by interrupting his narrative with clips of other movies from other times, and by allowing his venture to run down at the close like some clockwork coming to the end of its spring.
All this is accomplished with the casual necromancy that has made Bergman a Prospero of the camera, and one leaves the theatre almost physically done in by the film’s demands on one’s wits. At the same time, there is a letdown in retrospect. For one thing, although its cinematic nature is so deliberately emphasized, the work advances in a series of almost static tableaux, and fails to develop the flexibility and flow that almost invariably form the structure of rewarding movies. Since one of the two main characters refuses to speak and the other speaks compulsively, the picture becomes focused on words, and an audience dependent on subtitles finds itself reading almost as much as it is watching or listening.
Further, Bergman here carries the main burden of his tale in close-ups, using them to such excess that the technique takes on moral overtones. To close in so persistently on people is itself a form of aggression, and the device achieves a semblance of emotional intensity by means as inherently suspect as the use of blood-stirring music to support dramatic peaks. At a distance of two inches, eyes invariably start and lips invariably become sensual cushions of flesh. The context may justify such melodrama, but the effect is so mechanically achieved that the burden of congruity is on the director. And as with most mechanical stimulants, the close-up rather quickly creates a dependence, so that unless you use it with great discipline—only in moments, as it were, of the most severe need—it becomes a habit replacing more valid ranges of communication. It looked to me as though Bergman had become addicted in Persona.