Saturday, March 2, 2019

A SHIP TO INDIA - INGMAR BERGMAN'S CINEMA


Criterion’s recent boxed set Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema collects the bulk of the Swedish director’s films in one place, but rather than just present them in chronological order, the producers of the box decided to curate the movies as if this were a festival, inviting viewers to explore the maestro’s work according to period and theme, hopefully leading them to connections they might not have seen had they watched Bergman's oeuvre more haphazardly (a mission not entirely dissimilar to the stated goal of this blog).

I’m going to attempt to respect that in how I watch the movies. We will see how it goes. I don’t want to front, I can tell you now i won’t always be re-watching ones I’ve already seen, and when I do, I doubt I will review them again. It’s a time issue, really, not a lack of desire. But we will see how the spirit of cinema moves me.

I’ve already reviewed the set’s first two offerings, which you can read here:

* Smiles of a Summer Night
Crisis


In the festival, Crisis, Bergman’s first film, is paired with his third, 1947’s A Ship to India. Both are melodramas with genre trappings, the result of a young filmmaker’s apprenticeship in Sweden’s version of the studio system. Humble beginnings, to be sure, and not dissimilar to the Beatles starting out as a covers band, but as the essay accompanying these movies asserts, it’s good to see that all great artists have to start somewhere.

A Ship to India has much in common with a Hollywood back-lot romance. It hinges on a father/son rivalry over a vaudeville singer. “That damn Captain Blom” (Holgen Löwenadler, Lacombe, Lucien), as his crew refers to him, is a rough personality. He lives with his wife, Alice (Anna Lindahl), and son, Johannes (Birger Malmsten, Thirst [review]), on their salvage boat, working intermittently as the mood strikes him. As his business sits idle, Blom lives it up in town, brawling and drinking, and wooing the chanteuse Sally (Gertrud Fridh, The Magician [review]). When the Captain finds out he’ll be going blind within the year, he decides to cash in his chips. One last job, and then he’ll leave the family and take Sally to India.


This surge of selfishness collides with Johannes’ own plans to get out. He wants to join another ship and make his way in the world--something his father finds laughable. Johannes was born with a small hump on his back, and he is seen as a cripple. His father has treated him as lesser-than all his life. Mother encourages what she can, as do the other men, but it’s not until Sally comes along that Johannes starts to get a little courage.

Narratively, A Ship to India is all over the place. The story takes a while to find its central track, instead sideswiping us with bizarre character outbursts like Johannes getting drunk and nearly raping Sally. Then again, perhaps the young Bergman sees a sort of anarchy in the volatile emotions of the men in the Blom family, since the Captain is prone to violent lashings out, as well. It’s these character complications that make A Ship to India interesting. Captain Blom is a completely sympathetic villain, and Johannes is far from a purely noble hero.  You hear each man express his fears and desires, only for them to turn around and do something awful. I’m surprised Bergman didn’t use Holgen Löwenadler more. He has a presence not unlike Max von Sydow. His moodiness plays across his face like oil slithering through water.


There are traces of later Bergman in this fledgling work. The family dynamics would come to play time and again, all the way through famous later films like Cries and Whispers. There is also an early hint at his love of theatrical presentations. Whenever we are in the theater with Sally, he prefers to shoot from backstage rather than the front of the house, always more interested in what’s behind the curtain than what is in front of it.


But there is also a clumsiness that could have been taken care of with another script polish. The framing sequence that shows us the family five years later is superfluous, and seems to exist only to give us a semblance of a happy ending. Much of the same could have been achieved by keeping to one timeline. It might have even heightened the drama to have so much happen all at once. There is also a lack of vibrancy to most of the staging. Bergman’s performers regularly come off as subdued, and it’s less like they are holding back as a choice and more like not everyone on set is as yet comfortable with working for the camera.

Still, A Ship To India would have been a comfortable B-selection paired with a more prestige picture--something kind of funny to say about an Ingmar Bergman release since “prestige” is practically his middle name, but as noted earlier, everyone has to start somewhere.



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