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It’s clear from the first few minutes of Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA that this film is something special and strange, and just a bit creepy. It opens with a collage of shocking imagery before settling into the main storyline of a young nurse charged with the care of an actress who has suddenly gone mute. They retreat to the seaside for her recovery, and there they spend most of the film alone in each other’s company. The performances by Bibi Andersson (with all the dialogue) and Liv Ullmann (with no dialogue) are both incredible, as their relationship shifts between amicable, intimate, hostile, and sexually charged. They’re highlighted by stark black and white cinematography, and propelled by just enough plot to keep things moving before the story starts to fray and fall apart. PERSONA is a puzzle of identity, gender, and existential angst that I have neither the space nor qualification to unravel. But even at face value, there’s no escaping the film’s mysterious emotional impact.
I made a mistake with this title. The first time I sat down to watch it, I thought the theatrical release was the unabridged one. Only afterwards did I realize that the televised version is the five-hour-plus original. Now that I’ve watched both, I can confidently say that the television version is superior, worth every additional second. FANNY AND ALEXANDER, one of Ingmar Bergman’s later accomplishments, is mostly the story of Alexander, a quiet, perceptive ten-year-old growing up in an affluent family in turn-of-the-century Sweden. In the span of a few years, he is faced with death, ghosts, captivity, and mysticism. It’s difficult to summarize the film since it spans so many events and touches on so many themes. Yet the story is also deeply personal; despite the omniscient camera, it seems as though everything is being viewed through Alexander’s eyes. Thus the laws of nature tend to wobble, and supernatural threats become real. All of this is offset by the wonderful ensemble cast that portrays the warm and charming Ekdahl family. Just don’t be intimidated by the length: all four episodes are mesmerizing and moving for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint.
I had seen this film on television once, but I was doing something else at the time and only half paying attention. And really, if you’re watching a film in Swedish, paying attention is pretty important. Fortunately I took the time to watch it again, and loved every minute. THE SEVENTH SEAL is a meditation on death and the meaning of life, appropriately set during the black plague and perfectly symbolized by the protagonist playing an extended game of chess with Death personified. Despite the weighty subject, there are plenty of fun moments and lighthearted characters, which make this serious, artistic film also thoroughly enjoyable. Even Death, himself, has a sardonic sense of humor.