Persona Explained (Bergman, 1966)

Honestly, I don’t find this film difficult to understand. It’s not ambiguous, I think it’s quite clear what Bergman is saying. Of course, I may be wrong,

First, you must understand that Elizabeth is the person and Sister Alma is the persona. (* – See comments for explanation of this unclear sentence). There are plenty of indications of this throughout the film, in both content and form.

Elizabeth has an identity, she is an actress with a husband and son. She is quiet and contemplative because she is the external aspect of the person. Alma represents the inner turmoil, the self conflict. Elizabeth is studying her (i.e. the content of the letter), just like anyone experiencing introspection.

Alma screams that she is constantly changing, this is because, while Elizabeth will never change in appearance, her persona is constantly changing. Alma leaving on the bus, right after shots of a film crew, indicate the transitive nature of that persona; Alma leaves, and, like an actress who has finished performing a role, Elizabeth’s persona changes – Alma is no more. Elizabeth is an actress, but it’s indicative of the personality of human beings in general – we are all acting, always fulfilling a role, and, in doing that role, we create a real, definable character of ourselves, through our actions – this is our persona. When our actions are altered our persona is altered; as we change how we act, our persona changes with us.

Sister Alma is called ‘Sister’ Alma because, while the two aspects are actually one, Alma is the subvenient one (Elizabeth, supervenient), a kind of ‘tag a long’, the inner, sister, part of Elizabeth… the ground of Elizabeth’s being. A change in Elizabeth’s character suggests a necessary change in Alma (Elizabeth’s persona), while a change in Alma (Elizabeth’s persona) does not necessitate a phenomenal change in Elizabeth’s character. This is the basis for all of Alma’s conflict, it’s why Elizabeth remains unchanged until the end of the film; we are watching the profound underlying aspect of consciousness, the active inner part that guides and influences our emotions, and that our thoughts are only partially aware of. Elizabeth is only partially aware of what’s going on with Alma – what’s going on within her mind. When Alma gives Elizabeth that speech about truth and being real and honest, it’s because Elizabeth is this facade, this forefront of her identity, the conscious aspect that is only partially aware of the truth of her being. All that is not conscious – her persona – is hidden from her, though it’s trying to make itself known.

In the one scene where Alma is with Elizabeth’s husband, we see Alma, but this is superimposed with foregrounded images of Elizabeth. We’re seeing the persona, but the actual person is Elizabeth. This is why Alma suddenly realizes that it’s her lover, because it really is, and always has been. Since Elizabeth’s husband’s name is left out, it’s likely that the name Alma gives her fiance (can’t remember it at the moment) is actually the name of Elizabeth’s husband. (Seeing as they are two aspects of the same identity). The son that exists, despite the attempts to abort, is Elizabeth’s real son; Alma’s story about having an abortion is Elizabeth’s persona, her conscience, finding a way to hide itself, out of fear, from the truth that she has a son.

Finally, the film speaks in metaphor, this is a function of art. It’s neither necessarily linear, in time, actual, dream, or w/e you want to call it – It’s a film, it should be treated as such. The scenes are there to convey something – an idea, an image, a meaning – and Bergman uses form to do this in the most effective manner. It doesn’t all have to make sense on a literal level, it’s the experience, the stream of consciousness that it imparts, that matters.

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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21 Responses to Persona Explained (Bergman, 1966)

  1. Bjorn says:

    Had a very similar interpretation after watching this, the battle between the conscious and the unconscious seems quite ovious.

  2. gizmo says:

    I liked your interpretation. I also thought they are the same person. It is obvious in the last scene where their faces meet. And also when Alma talks about the son of Elizabeth, the thing said and the thing understood is completely different from each other. Elizabeth is full of horror while Alma is just admitting herself that she had those thoughts and feelings.

    This is a strange and reasonable film. I think everyone in the world should see it.

    Btw. what do you think about the creepy statue at the end of the movie. When we see it, camera turns immediately to Elizabeth acting as Elektra. It made me think that maybe we saw Alma’s persona as Elizabeth. Maybe it was Alma speaking with the quiet, emotionless statue the whole time…

    I don’t know about that but I know that this movie is amazing.

    • claire says:

      I had the same thoughts about the statue at the end. Elizabeth may be a projection of who Alma wants to be, until, ultimately, she must face her truth at the end when she speaks to elizabeth about her son.

      • Sorsch says:

        My opinion of the statue is,like said from JK Gent, that the persona is broken and that there is no need for it anymore. Then we see the acting Elizabeth, i think the person who she was earlier. I would even say without a persona and before suppressing her feelings. Alma as her sub- or unconsciousness told Elizabeth things (from the past) that she did not want to hear, that she suppressed. So the persona breaks and Elizabeth realizes who she was and is and that is a shock and that’s what i see in her face

  3. Jk Gent says:

    I just watched this film again, last night after 25 years since the last viewing. It was assigned to is in my master’s degree psychology class. I had a lot to say about it then, but cannot easily remember what I wrote on that paper. Last night I saw it the same way as you described. It was easy to see tht Alma was surely some part of Elizabet in the scenes you have described. But most apparently when Alma details, step by step, Elizabet’s experience of becoming a mother and being a mother. It has to be repeated. And the second tome Alma emulates Elizabet in her ahead band. That indicates to me that Elizabet is slowing bringing the truth to her conscious mind. It takes repetition of the story because she has repressed it so strongly.

    Liv Ullman does a masterful job of acting as she has practically no lines (none,really to speak of really). Acting with facial expression and body movement alone- well, it is unbelievably difficult I imagine.

    I think the scene with the statue is merely symbolic that the persona has broken, and is becoming lifeless.

    You have done a wonderful job analyzing the film. Thanks.

  4. Jk Gent says:

    Additionally, I,have not seen anyone mention the fact that Bibimbap Anderson had an affair with Bergman from 1955 to 1959. Liv Ullman was in a relationship with driving the filming and for 5 years. She was pregnant with Bergman’s child in Hour of the Wolf. I wonder what effect this might have had on their acting. I would not have found it easy to work with my lover’s former mistress or as a former mistress working with his present mistress. I thought of this quite consciously when I watched it. I believe both brought some use of that emotion to bear in their acting. An example is Liv Ullman’s demeanor during Alma’s confession of the sexual encounter with the young boys and the other sunbather.

  5. T. Koener says:

    A little Latin may help. Persona: mask. Alma: soul.

  6. Anne says:

    I am so overwhelmed by your precise interpretation that I cannot accept someone could possibly understand it any differently. Thank you!

  7. Joana says:

    Alma means Soul in my mother tongue 🙂 very interesting

  8. ajnish7 says:

    How would you explain the scene where Alma threatens Elisabeth’s life with boiling water causing her to finally speak, saying “No, don’t!”?

    • Kamran Ahmed says:

      Tbh, I wouldn’t feel right trying to answer that question now, having not really thought deeply about the film since I wrote this post 4 years ago. I did recently acquire the Criterion release, though, and I’ll be back here to post further thoughts—also provide my personal answer your question—when I do 🙂

  9. Archie Enfield says:

    Hi Kamran

    I very much enjoyed reading this piece, and while its meaning is not as fixed in my mind as it appears (or appeared – I appreciate you wrote this quote a whole ago) to be in yours you certainly present a compelling argument.

    However, your statement that Elizabet is the person and Alma the persona leaves me somewhat confused, especially as you go on to write at length how Alma is Elizabeth’s consciousness. One’s persona isn’t the same as one’s consciousness, but is rather a character created to present to others. In it’s original Latin usage a persona was a theatrical mask which actors would wear to make the emotional state of their character clear for the audience . In other words, the persona is not inner but outer. So if you are saying that Elizabeth is the external and Alma the internal then surely it is Elizabeth who is the persona and Alma the true person beneath?

    I enjoyed thinking about this film in Freudian terms. Alma lacks restraint, telling Elizabeth everything, speaking of carnal desires and engaging in violent and sexual actions: she is the id. Elizabeth, with her high moral standards as seen in her unwillingness to misrepresent her true self through talking and her revulsion at the images of Vietnam and the holocaust, is the id. Fuse them together, as Bergman does with their faces, and you get what they present to the world: the ego, the persona. Rather than one of the two women being the persona, perhaps they form it together.

    I can’t wait to watch the film again (I have a 48 hour rental period – I reckon I could fit a fair few viewings in!), and to watch more of Bergman’s work. I enjoyed THE SEVENTH SEAL, but PERSONA has made me think like few other films have.

    One more stray observation… I personally associated the name Alma with the term alma mater. Looking it up, it turns out this literally means ‘fostering/nourishing/nursing mother’, which seems significant considering that Elizabeth is quite the opposite of this, and Alma herself had an abortion. However what Bergman hoped to achieve with this association, if it was indeed intentional, I am not sure. Then again, I’m not sure about a lot of things in this movie, except that it is great.

    • Kamran Ahmed says:

      Some great points here, which I’ll have to consider on my next rewatch. Thank you for reading.

      I think the reason you are confused by my interpretation is that my language is not clear at all. Looking back on this piece from four years ago, I sigh at my lack of clarity.

      I should not have stated in the first sentence so polemically that “alma is the persona”. What is meant by this statement is that Alma, as described later, is the unconscious aspect of Elizabeth which is instrumental in the creation of Elizabeth’s persona. I think you are absolutely correct stating that the persona in question involves a merging of the two rather than being one or the other. I think the idea of a persona is a metaphysical one and thus cannot be applied to either of the girls directly. But it is due to Alma’s fleeting nature, her subvenient role as Elizabeth’s “id” (as you interpret), that Elizabeth’s persona too must always be in flux. Elizabeth may make a superficial change in appearance, a conscious will of creating a persona, but I think that Bergman’s notion of the persona is a metaphysical one which exposes the natural coalescence of Elizabeth’s conscience, both her beliefs and their underlying origins. By underlying origins I mean the unconscious, what is represented symbolically by Alma.

      Perhaps, then, her persona is the desire to repress those origins in a manner of presenting artificial beliefs in place of them. In other words, her persona is the drive to rid herself of the Alma inside of her. If Alma wasn’t there, if there was no unconscious to repress, there would be no need of a persona. But it is natural, unseen, and human for such to exist.

  10. Rochelle Baker says:

    I realize this is an old conversation but I just watched the film last night and then read this piece. http://warriorofthelight.com/engl/edi212a_jung.shtml
    If we see Liv Ullman (Elisabeth) as the mask, Bibi Andersson (Alma) as the soul, the war imagery (Viet Nam, the Holocaust) as the Shadow and Bergman himself as the Wise Old Man who shows us all the signs, then this movie fits quite perfectly with Jung’s analysis.

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  13. benny says:

    not the same person, your take on it is very wrong.

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