American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Shakespeare used six words to pose the essential human choice: "To be, or not to be?" Elizabeth, a character in Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," uses two to answer it: "No, don't!" She is an actress who one night stopped speaking in the middle of the performance, and has been silent ever since. Now her nurse, Alma, has in a fit of rage started to throw a pot of boiling water at her. "No, don't!" translates as: I do not want to feel pain, I do not want to be scarred, I do not want to die. She wants . . . to be. She admits . . . she exists.
"Persona" (1966) is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries. It is apparently not a difficult film: Everything that happens is perfectly clear, and even the dream sequences are clear--as dreams. But it suggests buried truths, and we despair of finding them. "Persona" was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it. A third of a century later I know most of what I am ever likely to know about films, and I think I understand that the best approach to "Persona" is a literal one.
It is exactly about what it seems to be about. "How this pretentious movie manages to not be pretentious at all is one of the great accomplishments of 'Persona,' " says a moviegoer named John Hardy, posting his comments on the Internet Movie Database. Bergman shows us everyday actions and the words of ordinary conversation. And Sven Nykvist's cinematography shows them in haunting images. One of them, of two faces, one frontal, one in profile, has become one of the most famous images of the cinema.
Elizabeth (Liv Ullmann) stops speaking in the middle of Electra, and will not speak again. A psychiatrist thinks it might help if Elizabeth and Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) spend the summer at her isolated house. Held in the same box of space and time, the two women somehow merge. Elizabeth says nothing, and Alma talks and talks, confessing her plans and her fears, and eventually, in a great and daring monologue, confessing an erotic episode during which she was, for a time, completely happy.