Classic Musings: Persona (1966)

A first-timer's experience with Ingmar Bergman's Persona could hit them harder than they might expect, especially after its enigmatic, sensory-rattling opening: sparks generated by a projector's arc-light system, stretches of silent-era footage, and flashes of provocative innuendo-laced imagery quickly offset one's point of view. It's intentionally disorienting as a primer for what's to come, a distortion of the audience's perspective during those moments while they're trying to resolve who's the observer of the story manifesting before them. Are these clues, thematic suggestions, or merely red herrings leading into what's ultimately one of cinema's early iterations of a maze-like contraption of a film? The answer, if you want to call it that, lies in the experience itself, really, and its avant-garde intentions towards observation and interpretation. Marking a transition point in Bergman's career as his breathtaking composition and eerie existentialism further explores the psyches of two isolated women, Persona remains a mesmerizing abstract endeavor that tiptoes the line between the graspable and unknowable.

Eventually, after several minutes of jarring visual devices with little outward rhyme or reason (aside from clear references to Bergman's previous works), the story proper begins with a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), accepting an assignment to help a celebrated actress, Elizabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), overcome a state of being inexplicably stricken mute. Deeming the patient psychologically and physiologically fine, her doctor suggests that the pair withdraw to an isolated beach house for further treatment in a casual environment, with Alma more as a potential conversation companion instead of a medical professional. From there, Persona pivots on the details of Alma's stream of dialogue aimed at the actress, revealing more about her experiences -- her engagement, her previous sexual encounters, her ambition as an individual -- as the silent Elizabet absorbs and reacts to her chatter. Tension mounts as their time continues, with Alma herself eerily and reverently adopting some of Elizabet's traits.

Filtered through the lens of Bergman's crucial collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Persona frames the relationship between Alma and Elizabet in the director's signature stark visuals, from the sterile claustrophobia of the hospital to the airy, rocky expanses of the doctor's seaside house. The isolation and craggy landscape inform the film's expressive core, shaping the nurse's character as she bears her soul with no indication whether Elizabet will return the favor. When they're not taking walks along the Swedish coast, their closeness gets shrouded by eerie shadows within the free-flowing home, the intensity of their gazes and the creases forming in their facial expressions becoming important as Bergman's construction of their identities comes into focus. His concentration on imagery evolves into an emotionally-provocative exploration of mirror images and reflections, where some of the director's most profoundly lyrical shots -- a silhouette against the ripples of a pond; the overlap of bodies in an obscuring fog; the conscientious interruption of celluloid damage -- compliment the story's challenging grasp on identity.

Bergman cleverly lures the audience into embracing the nurse's steady admissions and submissive admiration, freely divulging her secrets and trust; he also, on the other hand, urges those watching to observe how Elizabet reacts to Alma's common flaws and Personal idiosyncrasies, and how Alma herself responds to the lack of recompense. It's fascinating to behold: Alma's vocalized interpretations of Elizabet's purely physical reactions, often in the form of accusations, might differ from the audience's, the stunted actress' thought-processes rarely a certainty as their one-sided candor gradually turns toxic. Bibi Andersson's presence evolves into layered and intense complexity as Alma's jumbled personality comes to the surface, the fire in her eyes and body language developing as the film furthers as an exercise in human observation, of repressing and avoiding one's Personality because it makes their life easier. Liv Ullmann's eerie near-silent performance, herself expressive through eyes and bodily gestures, potently validates Bergman's ideas about the power-play involved in dependence, egotism, and unspoken attraction.

Persona's solemn examination of the human disposition takes a sharp, cerebral (and, some might say, anticipated) turn into Bergman's wheelhouse of surrealist and existential considerations later on, using what's known about the two women as a medium for interpretation about their true identities. The director doesn't hold any of his creative aspirations back as disquieting imagery and abstract plays with the medium -- two sides of a face lining up with one another; the sizzle of overworked film to convey volatility; the reemergence of bizarre images from the film's prologue -- spiral the film into an analytical playground, urging those witnessing the unspooling rapport between Alma and Elizabet to question the nuance lying underneath. Like many of Bergman's films, however, Persona's challenges to the audience suffer little from pretense or futility: its clues and visual triggers, willfully contrived into being bizarre and intentionally provocative, form a cohesive mosaic that never lets the director's puzzling, cynical ambition out of its sight. It's playful, deviously so, but not without purpose.

Deciphering a concrete "solution" to what unfolds in this Pandora's Box of cinema might, perhaps, be an act of futility once everything's packed back up and prepared to leave the audience with their viewpoints. All one can really do is narrow down the assorted interpretations that Bergman puts before us: whether events through Alma's perspective manifest as dream sequences, flights of madness, or to be taken literally in the pair's psychologically turbulent time together, all of which work in context. And then there's Bergman's overarching ideas about perspective and cinema itself, seen through the rattle of film negatives and the fade of projector lights that bookend the film, maybe suggesting a correlation between the subjectivity of observing cinema and the subjectivity of comprehending someone's inherent persona. Bergman orchestrated a wealth of secrets under the surface in Persona, both figurative and literal concoctions that open up after further inspection (and introspection). The expertly-crafted psychological drama between Alma and Elizabet fascinates at first blush; the meaning built around their unstable rapport, which can evolve upon repeat viewings, is what makes it a masterwork.

'47 Ronin' Makes Costly Samurai Fantasy Into a Vapid Mess

Directed by: Carl Rinsch; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: D+

Several optimistic possibilities rush through one's mind while watching the trailer for 47 Ronin, Carl Rinsch's costly feature-length debut. Could it be visually interesting in the vein of Asia's native martial-arts fantasies? Or, will it offer enough swordsmanship and wizardry within it quasi-historical Japanese context to become something of a guilty pleasure? Maybe it'd even spark a surge in Keanu Reeves' work, finding a medium for his intense stoicism that plays well for him in the way that The Matrix did. Alas, director Rinsch unveils a surprising disappointment: instead of glossy visuals and sword duels crafting something with energy, most of 47 Ronin's merits were, regrettably, crammed into that three-minute trailer, a tantalizing abridgment of its sparse enchantments, even sparser combat, and an overcooked perspective on Japanese honor. Hopes fizzle of the film manifesting into at least a B-grade spectacle, replaced with a tedious two hours that make it abundantly clear why it flopped at the box office.

It's easy to get behind the idea for 47 Ronin: to adapt Japan's legendary tale of forty-seven samurai who rebel against a domineering court official after their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), is forced to commit seppuku (ritualized suicide), then restructure the events to involve elements of folklore and magic. Shapeshifters, demons, and malicious witchcraft converge around a Japanese-British warrior, Kai (Reeves), who struggles to find a place within Lord Asano's domain, observing the samurai's rigid class structure as an outsider while falling for Asano's daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki). When a ceremonial gathering between rivaling districts to host Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) ends in tarnishing Asano's reputation, sparked by the spells cast from a devious witch (Rinko Kikuchi) working alongside Asano's adversary, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), the region leader's mandatory suicide leads to the disbanding of his samurai -- led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) -- as their master's rule is consolidated. Despite not trusting the half-breed, Oishi and his men find themselves in a position where they must seek out Kai while mustering a plan to overthrow Lord Kira's imposed reign, despite the shogun forbidding any retaliation.

Emerging after five years of development hindered by reshoots and delays, 47 Ronin operates on a script cobbled together from Chris Morgan, the scribe behind the two most recent Fast and Furious films, and Hossein Amini, whose penmanship can be found in The Four Feathers and Snow White and the Huntsman. In retrospect, perhaps the film's take on Chushingura fiction needed to be faster and more furious instead of echoing the dull faux-historical fantasy one can find in Rupert Sanders's take on the Snow White fable. Bland, unconvincing representations of Japanese nobility and the samurai code clash with overstated English-delivered dialogue, despite most of the cast being of Japanese descent, while a surprising lack of energy sets in due to the absence of action. It results in dreadfully unexciting world-building for the first forty-five minutes or so, lacking the dramatic authority needed to absorb it as anything beyond a potential catalyst for whimsical conflicts. The only sparks come from Rinko Kikuchi and her character's handful of bewitching tactics, barely discovering a pulse over the lethargic pacing.

While the story almost inherently gravitates towards the leader of the ronin -- and, by extension, the very capable Hiroyuki Sanada -- as the hero, 47 Ronin goes against the grain by trying to thrust Keanu Reeves' character into the spotlight, whose battle prowess and awareness of mystical forces are crucial to their dutiful vengeance. This opens a door for a potentially deeper character story about Kai's conflicting lineage and his affection for Lord Asano's daughter (a familiar commoner-royalty romantic angle), but the film stumbles with Keanu Reeves' taciturn demeanor, shaping Kai into an aloof outsider by emphasizing the wrong side of the actor's standoffish essence. Almost none of the fire or frank determination Reeves expresses in The Devil's Advocate and Speed are present in his scruffy, sulking non-samurai, while also resulting in a void of chemistry between he and romantic interest Mika. Everything built around Kai feels like an anachronistic interruption in the story of the forty-seven, unhelped by persistent close-ups on Reeves that artificially emphasize his role as the lead.

In fact, 47 Ronin constantly feels as if two different films -- an inspiring historical epic and a visceral eye-candy fantasy -- are dueling against one another instead of collaborating, distorting one's perception of what this take on the legend really wants to be or whether it'd benefit from more barefaced action or restrained historical folklore. Like this, despite the best efforts of John Mathieson's opulent cinematography, the fantastical action touted in its advertising feels sparse and unengaging right up to film's big payoff, gaining little momentum as it messily sets up a climactic storm on the castle. Even the covert streaming of arrows and the twisted flight of a huge mythical beast against a snowy setting doesn't have the gusto to justify the slumberous events that precede such a vigorous ending, as Carl Rinsch's bloated debut remains in conflict with itself until the bitter end. Strangely, those whimsical touches that once garnered interest in this project end up generating both 47 Ronin's surface-level appeal and becoming the worst enemy to authenticty, where dethroning usurpers who employ witchcraft and dragons still wouldn't earn the masterless samurai a satisfying reprieve from punishment.

'Tabu' a Frustratingly Esoteric Study of Guilt and Adultery

Directed by: Miguel Gomes; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: C+

Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes casts an esoteric spell with his third feature-length film, Tabu, a tale of guilt, forbidden love, and mythical crocodiles set through the sweltering African landscape, with a mystery embedded within about the woman whose experiences prove to be the code to comprehending events in the past and present. Obstinate lyricism and an inclination towards silent-era homage styling somewhat in the vein of Chris Marker and Guy Maddin lend the film a strange, resonant core, hallmarked by rich motifs distilled from mischievous cinematic tricks: a restless older woman divulges her dreamscape in a lengthy one-sided diatribe, counterbalanced by an entire second half of the film free of dialogue aside from its languidly poetic narration. Its strangeness serves as a mask over what's ultimately a traditional exploration of the eventual overdramatic demons within one's past, making it a demanding exercise in ominous self-reference that's enhanced by Gomes' eye for compellingly soulful imagery.

After setting the film's tone with a downhearted movie within a movie, a tale of an African hunter driven to commit suicide in crocodile-infested waters because of a love affair, Tabu introduces the mystery of an elderly woman, Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose daily agitation concerns her neighbor, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who's disappointed that a visiting nun won't be staying at her house. The first half of the film, gloomily entitled "Paradise Lost" and set in Lisbon, revolves around building curiosity towards Aurora and her standoffish African maid, Santa (Isabel Munoz), the same sort of curiosity that drives Pilar when she's not engaged in political protests and socializing with her artist friend (and willing suitor). Gomes' style makes this section a disjointed challenge, almost intentionally so: Aurora's long-winded and nonsensical explanation of her symbolic dream feeds into her struggles with assumed dementia and confusion, leaving only the uninformed point-of-views of Pilar and Santa to make sense of the film's cryptic, meandering objectives. Turns out, after Aurora's inquiry to find a man named Gian-Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), it's quite intentional.

Director Gomes insists on keeping Aurora's mysteries well-obscured until the second half of Tabu, entitled "Paradise", where we're transported to '60s Africa at the edge of Mount Tabu just before the Portuguese Colonial war. The simmering political hostilities only serve as a backdrop for the complex love affair involving this version of Aurora (shrewdly captured by Ana Moreira) -- then married to a wealthy farmer -- unknown to the two women, told through calm, persistent narration from Gian-Luca Ventura with only the scattered pops of guns, splashes of water, as chirping insects as unassuming background noises alongside classic rock tunes. Enigmatic details buried within her ramblings begin to make sense during the flashback, as her nature as a calculated hunter and frigid individual outside of her tryst with Ventura (Carloto Cotta), an explorer with experiences in love and fame, becomes the film's compelling and evolving cipher. Gomes employs deeply expressive physical performances and ornate cinematography in place of actual dialogue between the characters, moving sluggishly at first until the film's unique heartrending sensuality engages the two lovers' character traits.

The peaks of Tabu's expressiveness lie in how director Gomes ethereally transports those observing the flashbacks -- whether it's the way they originally occurred or how they've manifest in Ventura's mind -- to a bygone era, achieving almost a documentary-like style amid subtle textural delights: playing table tennis in the rain, gazing upon a pet crocodile's scales, and making love underneath a mosquito net. On the other hand, this also feeds into one of the film's faults by simply ending "Paradise" without tying it back to the present era once Ventura's tale of secret rendezvous and romantic turmoil comes to a close. Instead, Gomes lets the climactic images painted by an old man's words to be the final deductions and catharsis points in the mystery built around Aurora, culminating in a pair of drawn-out and disparate blocks of exploratory character drama that leave one perplexed by the love affair's repercussions. Ultimately relying on meta reflections in the final moments of its distinctive and often ponderous ruminations about romance and fatalism, Tabu's resonance could benefit from more finality and consequence.