Thursday, September 25, 2008


Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona (a plot synopsis can be found here) is a thorough, implicitly violent study of confessionalism, if we take of course that the term confessionalism in this case means a person’s often uncontrollable and recurrent tendency to confess things of highly personal nature in front of a patient listener.
It demonstrates the lack of sovereignty that one has over oneself when one is placed in a situation where one ends up as the sole orator. With all her evident innocence and professional courtesy, Sister Alma unconsciously conceals the confining atmosphere of her existence: the uneventful, of not relatively dull unfolding of her life as she has fallen prey to convention and ordinariness, which in Freudian terms, inextricably impairs her ego, reducing her subconscious workings to the profound, childish inferiority complex of the nascent female psyche. Thus, as her relationship with Elizabeth becomes increasingly intimate, it serves to precipitate this effect by making Alma cling in desperation to a person of far stronger will and social standing; in fact, she becomes very susceptible to the intrinsic, often sadistic desire for a person to seek out another person who is perceived as possessing a greater level of autonomy both socially and mentally. The former’s sense of belonging is enhanced as a result, and for a temporary period of time, Sister Alma is subconsciously elevated within the hierarchy of her mind which is ultimately revealed as deeply prejudiced, contrary to her initial portrayal as a proper, affectionate, if not rather all too innocent young person. The sinisterly mute Elizabeth, with all her ominous, dark equanimity and unassailable strength of will, serves to make Sister Alma a verbal diarist: the latter virtually dictates the most intimate secrets of her past, this closeness forcing her to become a person of increasing impetuosity and random temper, sometimes menacingly furtive, sometimes shockingly apparent.

One thing for which we do not need the largely speculative psychoanalytical approach here is the fact that in the duration of the film, Sister Alma becomes increasingly withdrawn within herself; she is submerged, to an unavoidably powerful degree, into the realm of her instinctive drives for inner and outer recognition i.e. her craving for her ‘persona’ to be raised to the rank Elizabeth’s. Her ego becomes the single most important concept for her. Thus, both female characters exhibit a common trait of egoism, but they end up expressing it in ultimately conflicting ways.
I won’t go into much more detail there because I would simply be reiterating the same ideas over and over again, bearing in mind that so much has been written about the film.

One thing however which I would like to draw your attention to here concerning Persona is that for me, a very significant idea about the individual’s relation with the rest of society and the circle of people around him is postulated in it. During their private spiritual escapade together, Sister Alma and Elizabeth share a peculiar sort of relationship: they converse but only one of them is doing the talking – there is absolutely no reciprocity there, nothing to distract the frail, emotionally convulsed Alma from herself. Indeed, there lies the problem: Sister Alma becomes self-absorbed to the point of her ending up as probing the perilous, dark, brooding depths of her basest instincts. She is so withdrawn from society, Elizabeth being so open to her innermost secrets, that she momentarily forgets the conventional, monotonous, everyday reality of her social life, instead taking preference solely for her own past pains, misfortunes and inner turmoil. The dire consequences of this are several violent altercations with Elizabeth which come merely inches away from being fatal.

What does the film then suggest about society and ‘other’ people in general relative to the individual? Why is it that ironically ‘others’ are so vital to our level of sanity?
The second question is of greater importance of course. Indeed, by ‘ironically’ I mean so many other films and books that portray the individual slipping into the lugubrious abyss of insanity precisely because of other people. Countless stories follow that same basic scenario. Yet, Persona somewhat differs in the sense that the reverse is true in the world which it presents to us. Sister Alma is rendered a victim in the general scheme of things because she becomes so entrenched by herself, that she is made to question everything about her normal, regular life, all of which makes her scornful and increasingly prone to precipitous sadism as her incessant, resentful envy of Elizabeth is further fuelled by her unreciprocated confessions. She is indeed oblivious to anything aside from herself because she has temporarily gotten rid of everything that is part of her ordinary existence – her profession, her family etc. Thus all that had once been indelible from her life and all the things she had consciously viewed as her foremost priorities - it is all shattered only to expose her paining inner self which from the moment she is secluded with the enigmatically silent Elizabeth becomes her sole object of attention, contrary to what her initial task as a nurse was. She becomes an ungodly hermit, consecrating her ego at the price of her sanity.

What does this tell us then?

By her withdrawn condition, marked by intense confessionalism, Sister Alma proves something: the individual is inherently in need of ‘other people’ because they serve to distract him from himself, indeed through his perceived responsibility towards their dealings and their own personal necessities, he is diverted from the potentially fatal experience of self-absorption – what Sister Alma herself ends up experiencing throughout the film. Instead of Elizabeth serving positively as the ‘other’ person, her eerily silent disposition exacerbates Sister Alma’s feeling of isolation, and thus ultimately conditions her to unhealthy, unstable, unlimited confessionalism.
All in all, the film speaks eloquently about the human desire for belonging and self-actualisation, but it is also a powerful warning against one spiralling down into oneself with potentially fatal consequences. It does not espouse solidarity as much as it simply repudiates extreme egoism. The fact remains: one cannot be the sole talker, one cannot succumb to the temptation of appeasing one’s ego by the unceasing act of speaking one’s heart – it is a pernicious condition.

One needs other people, not just to spit at, as one well-known nihilist would have you believe, but also to simply converse with so that one does not end up sidetracked from the path of level-headedness and be immersed within oneself, drenched in the murky waters of one’s ego.
Hell may indeed be other people, but is not heaven the other extreme in the sense that it cannot offer us much beyond ourselves? Reciprocal, indeed normal relationship with people, with all its emotional baggage, may after all bestow you with a touch of stoicism to fend off your most subversive enemy – yourself.
A touch of stoicism? It itself would only tip the balance in favour of a heaven that we may dub hospitable.


At 25 September 2008 at 20:17 , Blogger ¡Benjaminista! said...

I'd be willing to amend, "One needs people, even if it's only to have someone to swear at" to "One needs people, even if it's only to have someone to swear with."

At 26 September 2008 at 11:43 , Blogger IPCHUK said...

I beg your pardon, it is indeed 'swear' not 'spit' originally.
Your proposed amendment is equally valid, but I stand by my view as set out in the post. The deal with everyday reality is that as much as it has the potential to harm you, it also bears the role of protecting you from yourself - a paradox no doubt but the film itself aptly explores it. In the end, the post is as much an intepretation of the film, as it is a relatively brief discourse on the dangers of self-absorption.

At 29 September 2008 at 23:26 , Anonymous 'Smoke said...

Hiya Ipchuk,

I'm guessing you liked the movie? I almost fell asleep, myself. But I do like the idea that humans who have limited social feedback are easily prey to "social predation." That mutual interactions give us the ability to gauge and temper our emotional output.

Considering how heavy-handed he makes these philosophical musings, you'd think Bergman would spice it up with more plot, instead of just laying it out there like he does in some of his films. For instance, I actually enjoyed one he made a few years later, "Hour of the Wolf," a bit more.

How do you gauge Bergman's artsy films against Jean-Luc Godard's output from this period?

At 30 September 2008 at 12:03 , Blogger Underground Dude said...

Haven't seen the film, but this...

"Hell may indeed be other people, but is not heaven the other extreme in the sense that it cannot offer us much beyond ourselves?"

... is a fine turn of phrase.

At 1 October 2008 at 04:54 , Blogger ¡Benjaminista! said...

"Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." I liked that too.

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