Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Eclipse Series 1: Early Bergman- Port of Call (1948)

Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman and Olle Länsberg
Rating: 3/5

After the admirable failure of Crisis, Ingmar Bergman would work on 3 more films: It Rains on Our Love (1946), A Ship Bound for India (1947), and A Ship for India (1947). In his fifth directorial effort,   Port of Call, a melodrama about a romance between the tortured Berit, played by Nine-Christine Jönsson, and gruff sailor Gösta, played by Bengt Eklun, its obvious that Ingmar Bergman has a much clearer grasp on how to direct a motion picture. Whether it be the beautifully hazy shots of shadowy dockworkers walking along the shipyard at dawn or the fluid long take that Gösta meeting his fellow dock workers in a shadowy room, Port of Call is a gorgeous film.

And yet the film is part of a genre not known for being particularly "gorgeous." Port of Call would be Bergman's first foray into Italian Realism, a genre more known more for its realistically, gritty urban environments and unkempt characters than stunning imagery. What's interesting is how Port of Call balances these two visual style. The dirt and grime are still there, Berit and Gosta often in a rather unkempt state for the majority of the film and images of working class poverty are in abundance. The difference is that Bergman is now, for the very first time, working with his longtime collaborator Gunnar Fischer, who would work with Bergman on many of his seminal works, such as The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957). Fischer succeeds in creating visual wonders by raising the image contrasts to more actively separate light and dark, creating beautiful outdoor scenes, such as the previously mentioned dock scene, and interior shots that have a nourish feel to them.

Yet despite this breathtaking imagery, the world of Port of Call is by no means pretty. The central romance between the suicidal Berit and the aimless Gosta unsurprisingly goes to some extremely dark places, dealing with Bergman's usual themes of childhood alienation, adult dismissal of youth opinion and culture, depression, anxiety, suicide, and even abortion. Combine this with it's realistic urban environment, and you've essentially got another dark and depressing Bergman film. In fact, the film was so controversial at the time, that it wouldn't even be released in the United States till 1963, even receiving an X rating when it debuted in the United Kingdom.

What really differentiates this from Bergman's previous efforts is, up to a point, Bergman actually integrates the themes into his narrative and actively engages with them.

What this leads to is the most fully formed Bergman films so far. Whether it be the extremely interesting relationship between Berit and her hateful mother, played by the menacing Berta Hall, or the dark emotional journey Berit goes through as she descends deeper into depression and madness due to years of neglect and isolation, Port of Call is the first Bergman directed film, in the Eclipse series at least, to actually have a core storyline that drives one through the entirety of the film.

However it all works up to a point. Unfortunately, the Gösta part of the story falters simply due to his character essentially being a cipher for the entirety of the film. What this means is that the central romance simply isn't able to come to a satisfying end and any scene involving his character becomes frustrating due to a lack of knowledge of his motives. By the end of the film, we know little of Gösta beyond him being a gruff sailor who sometimes is prone to angry emotional outbursts that aren't really adequately explored or thought out.

Which isn't to say that the film is a failure per say. Berit's story is thankfully the focus of the film, meaning that one will, at the very least, be interested for majority of the film's running time. It's a pity that Port of Call isn't better, especially considering the large strides forward in both writing and directing when compared to his directorial debut. Yet it's hard to be too disappointed when you take into account that Bergman had successfully constructed this fairly ambitious film merely 2 years into his directing career.


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