"Bergman at his most brilliant as he explores the symbiotic relationship that evolves between an actress suffering a breakdown in which she refuses to speak, and the nurse in charge as she recuperates in a country cottage. To comment is to betray the film's extraordinary complexity, but basically it returns to two favourite Bergman themes: the difficulty of true communication between human beings, and the essentially egocentric nature of art. Here the actress (named Vogler after the charlatan/artist in The Magician
) dries up in the middle of a performance, thereafter refusing to exercise her art. We aren't told why, but from the context it's a fair guess that she withdraws from a feeling of inadequacy in face of the horrors of the modern world; and in her withdrawal, she watches with detached tolerance as humanity (the nurse chattering on about her troubled sex life) reveals its petty woes. Then comes the weird moment of communion in which the two women merge as one: charlatan or not, the artist can still be understood, and can therefore still understand. Not an easy film, but an infinitely rewarding one."
– Tom Milne, Time Out
"Mrs. Vogler desires the truth. She has looked for it everywhere, and sometimes she seems to have found something to hold on to, something lasting, but then suddenly the ground has given way under her feet. The truth had dissolved and disappeared or had, in the worst case, turned into a lie.
"My art cannot melt, transform, or forget: the boy in the photo with his hands in the air or the man who set himself on fire to bear witness to his faith.
"I am unable to grasp the large catastrophes. They leave my heart untouched. At most I can read about such atrocities with a kind of greed–a pornography of horror. But I shall never rid myself of those images. Images that turn my art into a bag of tricks, into something indifferent, meaningless. The question is whether art has any possibility of surviving except as an alternative to other leisure activities: these inflections, these circus tricks, all this nonsense, this puffed-up self-satisfaction. If in spite of this I continue my work as an artist, I will no longer do it as an escape or as an adult game but in the full awareness that I am working within an accepted convention that, on a few rare occasions, can give me and my fellow beings a few seconds of solace or reflection. The main task of my profession is, when all is said and done, to support me, and, as long as nobody seriously questions this fact, I shall continue, by a pure survival instinct, to keep working.
"[From the 'diary' of Mrs. Vogler:] 'Then I felt that every inflection of my voice, every word in my mouth, was a lie, a play whose sole purpose was to cover emptiness and boredom. There was only one way I could avoid a state of despair and a breakdown. To be silent. And to reach behind the silence for clarity or at least try to collect the resources that might still be available to me.'"
– Ingmar Bergman, from his workbook for Persona (May 1965)