Cinema: Accidie Becomes Electro

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Persona. Director Ingmar Bergman is modern cinema's most persistent observer of the human condition. He examines the Eden that is Sweden and sees—much as Bruegel once did in Flanders—that the occupants are really having a Hell of a time. Persona, his 27th film, fuses two of Bergman's familiar obsessions: personal loneliness and the particular anguish of contemporary woman. It is the story of a great stage actress (Liv Ullman), suddenly become mute and detached while starring in a production of Electra. She is afflicted with what medieval theologians called accidie—a total indifference to life. Her doctor insists that her inactivity is simply another form of roleplaying, and he sends her packing to a villa on the Baltic in the company of a nurse (Bibi Andersson).

Slowly and subtly, a transference begins; the actress cannot, or will not, speak about her husband and son; the nurse cannot stop speaking—about herself. In explicit detail, the nurse describes an erotic beach encounter with an unknown boy, and the pregnancy and abortion that followed. Without realizing it, the babbling nurse has become the patient and the silently listening patient the nurse.

When the actress writes a letter to the doctor revealing her nurse's past tragedy, the nurse savagely turns on her, implying that she is playing Electra in real life as well as on the stage. The outburst serves as a catharsis that seems to make the nurse well. In the end, she leaves the villa to return to life; the actress, presumably, returns to the stage.

Bergman has tricked out his static, enigmatic story with flashes of his familiar images: a fat spider, which represented God in Through a Glass Darkly, and here seems only to be arachnid revulsion; a flickering silent movie of Death dancing comically around a table, a la Seventh Seal; a nail being pounded into the palm of a hand. In sequences reminiscent of The Silence, a little boy is twice shown on a hospital cot, reaching out to a wide, white wall that becomes the face of the nurse, as if he were a fantasy of her unborn child. Time and again, Bergman appears to have his film improperly spliced, showing blinding flashes of lights and numbers. The stunt reminds his viewers that the work is simply artifice, a game of poses and disguises.

Persona (the ancient Latin word for mask) is too deliberately difficult to rank with Bergman's best. But in an era when the director who dares to repeat himself is rare indeed—when the cinematic world is full of one-shot wonders, Bergman's consistency is itself refreshing. His bleak, unsparing vision of the condition of man remains his private property. Persona is one more acre of that estate—often tilled, perhaps, but still worth the plowing.