Persona ★★★★½

It had been three years since Ingmar Bergman's desolate, ambiguous The Silence, and his only feature film had been 1964's All These Women, a colossal flop. The French New Wave was sweeping Europe, and it was whispered that Bergman was washed up, a has-been whose most exciting work was behind him.

So he made Persona, which acts as a massive punch in the face to those allegations.

Opening with a visual overture than can only be described as a poem composed only of images, Persona soon settles into its story of an actress Elisabet Vokler (Liv Ullman), who has a nervous breakdown during a performance and has not spoken a word since. She is assigned a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), and the two retire to the doctor's seaside residence to convalesce.

Alma's response to Elisabet's silence is to chatter constantly, eventually revealing to her personal secrets that she has told no one else. Once Alma reads a letter written by Elisabet to the doctor, though, the tenor of the relationships changes, becomes more fractious and darker. Alma seems to be taking on some of Elisabet's personality, and vice versa, as each woman's dominance in the relationship seesaws back and forth.

As ever, Bergman calls upon amazing actors who seem to inhabit their roles so effortlessly. There are only four characters in Persona, and besides Ullman and Andersson, there is the Doctor (Margaretha Krook, in what I believe is her only Bergman film), and the always-welcome Gunnar Bjornstrand as Elisabet's blind husband. Sven Nykvist's black-and-white cinematography is so stunning I frequently just sat in my chair wondering why all black-and-white movies couldn't look like this.

Bergman's penchant for breaking the fourth wall - appropriated with great gusto by the New Wave - is here given free rein. In fact, it gallops through the movie, as we are reminded over and over that we are watching a movie. Casual viewers who thought The Silence was overly ambiguous are going to have a hard time dealing with Persona, as interpretations to what is actually transpiring in this movie are going to be as individual as the person watching it.

I have my own theories. You will have yours. And that is perfectly all right.