The hopeless dream of being – not seeming, but being. At every waking moment, alert. The gulf between what you are with others and what you are alone. The vertigo and the constant hunger to be exposed, to be seen through, perhaps even wiped out. Every inflection and every gesture a lie, every smile a grimace. Suicide? No, too vulgar. But you can refuse to move, refuse to talk, so that you don’t have to lie. You can shut yourself in. Then you needn’t play any parts or make wrong gestures. Or so you thought. But reality is diabolical. Your hiding place isn’t watertight. Life trickles in from the outside, and you’re forced to react. No one asks if it is true or false, if you’re genuine or just a sham. Such things matter only in the theater, and hardly there either. I understand why you don’t speak, why you don’t move, why you’ve created a part for yourself out of apathy. I understand. I admire. You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you’ve left your other parts one by one.
The dialogue above does tells us about the state of being or rather the state of realization Elisabet is in. These are not the words that somebody deciphers towards the end but are rather simply thrown at us in the beginning and that too through Elisabet’s doctor/psychiatrist. In doing so Bergman has not only saved us from concluding at them but also opened much deeper channels of interpretation. The movie doesn’t provides us any direct or indirect clues, and in effect making it very much open ended. There’s no way to tell whether what’s happening is in actuality or is something being played out in one of the women’s head. But one thing that Bergman does well is making sure of reminding the viewer that it’s just a movie. Be it the opening sequence or in the middle where seemingly disconnected images are flashed on the screen or the shot of the cameraman filming Persona towards the end, the viewer is constantly reminded that what’s being shown is through camera, altered, edited and concealed.
Persona is a psychological exchange between two women. One is Elisabet, a successful theater/film artist, but now suffering from a seemingly mental breakdown whereby she has gone mute and has stopped doing anything. Though its not explicitly shown if this is a voluntary willed moral situation or an involuntary unbecoming. The other woman is Alma, Elisabet’s nurse, who takes care of her in the hospital and at the beach.
And what happens next is a mysterious exchange of personalities as Elisabet becomes much more relaxed and happy towards the end and Alma gets down to suffer from a what seemed to be personality disintegration, while slowly attaining the personality of her patient. This exchange doesn’t happens both ways, on screen, as it can’t be said with surety for Elisabet’s case, though it is said that originally there was a footage where Elisabet returns to stage in the end. The exchange of Alma into Elisabet is shown quite elaborately.
In a way it can be seen as a display of fragility of human personality, wherein one’s identity blurs into someone else’s. And this exchange, this dismantalation is what leads to that, ‘hopeless dream of being…that gulf…that vertigo….’, that Elisabet is said to be feeling.
Interestingly, Alma in the end leaves the island, as she is shown boarding a bus, though it’s not shown where she goes and it’s also not shown whether she becomes the patient now or if Elisabet gets fine.