Ingmar Bergman: Port of Call (1948) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
12Oct/100

Ingmar Bergman: Port of Call (1948)

Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYI felt a great wave of relief come over me when the closing music to Port of Call began.  My previous assessment of Bergman's formative years was not particularly kind, and I did not have the best memories of this film.  I was further worried after watching Crisis last week.  There was a growing fear that I would have to endure five weeks of negative emotions ranging from tedium to panic just to get to the good stuff.

Thankfully, after a close analysis of Port of Call I can safely say that I still possess the ability to be surprised.  It's definitely not a good Bergman film, but it makes for a perfectly good drama.  On top of that, Port of Call deals with a lot of taboo issues that America would not touch for another twenty years or so (at least not as directly as in this film).

The opening scenes don't have the same sort of theatrical staginess that drowned Crisis in melodramatic goo and the rest of the film follows suit, but it does contain a quick surprise to grab our attention.  Gosta (Bengt Eklund) is a sailor coming back from a long overseas trip looking to find a place for himself on land.  Heading out is Berit (Nine-Christine Jonsson), who is introduced walking toward and then off of the pier.  When she is pulled out she screams at her would-be rescuers to leave her alone, a fairly clear sign that she is not in a good place.

I don't wish to focus on the plot of Port of Call, which consists of the growing relationship between Gosta and Berit.  What few surprises exist are nicely handled, and it deals a lot with Gosta's perception of how women exist as an object of desire, improperly handled by him most of the time, and the pain that Berit has gone through occupying the gaze of so many.

Rather, I am going to analyze Port of Call in relation to themes that Bergman will be using repeatedly throughout his career.  There's a sense of loneliness that pervades the lives of the Berit, Gosta, their friends and family.  No one has a way of connect to each other outside of the few fleeting moments of passion and occasional forays into violence.  They do not have ways of mediating their emotions in the realm of the symbolic, so mostly result to a forced intimacy to try and feel something.

Some of the visuals are a bit on the nose, but are far better composed than Bergman's first film.

Bergman portrays these moments without dialogue, and does not allow his words to get in the way of a good shot.  This was Bergman's first collaboration with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer and it is a fantastic pairing.  While he did not quite "get" Bergman the way that Sven Nykvist eventually would, Gunnar isolates Bergman's characters from the rest of the world in such a way that their environments threaten to keep them separated forever.

There's a fantastic sequence early in the film where as old friend of Gosta tells him that it's not always good to be lonely with a book.  Prior to the story, Gosta is framed with almost every inch of available camera space, lost in himself and his corner of the world.  After the story, the camera steps away, showing that he is occupying barely a 10th of the available space, and the world of his novels suddenly seems diminished.  I love a good book, but the sequence makes a very persuasive case for getting out once in a while.

Then we have one of Bergman's strongest recurring motif's, confrontations between strong women.  In this film a collision between Berit and her mother during which they both exchange slaps within two minutes of speaking.  It is not as spontaneous and forced as it could be, with Bergman suggesting a horrid past with barely a few lines.  Then there is the matter of Berit's sister, who is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, and the steps she takes to rectify it.  The resolution of that plot line prevented Port of Call from being released in America for almost fifteen years, and even then Bergman had to win two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film (for The Virgin Springs, and Through A Glass Darkly) to even consider it.  The politics are liberal here, so liberal that the film would have difficulty playing in today's climate.

There are many shots that suggest Bergman's eventual obsession with the human face.

The weakest part of Port of Call is the happy ending.  Bergman needed to learn to let his characters have the fates that they deserve.  Right when things seem like they're ready to wrap up, the film jumps ahead a year and tacks on a happy denouement that it does not earn.  A good case of how to do it right can be seen in one of Martin Scorsese's earliest films, Who's That Knocking At My Door? The two filmmakers are almost light years apart in terms of style, but are working with very similar themes of sexuality and guilt.  Scorsese understood that his couple could never be happy for the same reasons that Bergman ignores.

It's another stepping stone for Bergman.  Reservations about the ending aside, Port of Call is a sign of great maturation for Bergman.  There are no moments of forced theatricality, a refined visual sense, and a defined arc for his characters.  Now if he could only stay away from Jazz parlors in his films we'll be in business.

Next week is Thirst.  A dry run for The Silence that could use some of that quiet.  See you all then.

The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Port of Call (1948)

Written and directed Ingmar Bergman.
Starring  Bengt Eklund and Nine-Christine Jonsson.

Posted by Andrew

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