Port of Call doesn’t make a great first impression. In the context of Bergman’s complete oeuvre (if movie watching had a progress bar, we’d be somewhere between 80% and 90% through his filmography), its first fifteen, twenty minutes or so is more striking in its images than its storytelling, as the latter seems oddly impersonal, almost generic. Once past the initial hurdle of a decidedly middling beginning, however, there’s more to like about Port of Call than is immediately apparent.
Criterion’s essay had it right: Port of Call doesn’t much feel like an Ingmar Bergman film. It lacks the thematic concerns and approaches to the material. Compared to Thirst, which came out a year later, there’s clearly less in Port of Call that is recognisably Bergman about the film; if anything, it may be Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography that is recognisable here: more documentary perhaps than in The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries, but nonetheless already highly assured in this first collaboration. Nonetheless, while Thirst may be more of a Bergman film, Port of Call ends up being remarkably confident in terms of its storytelling – it just needs some time to find its feet.
Like Thirst, Port of Call is not material that originated with Bergman himself. It adapts a novel by Olle Länsberg, an author that I have to admit I’ve never heard of. The material also doesn’t seem immediately promising: Gösta (Bengt Eklund), a sailor returned from overseas, starts a fling with Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson), but her troubled past and time spent in a reformatory, an institution for ‘troubled women’, threaten to drive a wedge between them. It all sounds rather generic, doesn’t it, like the kind of plot that any number of long-forgotten films from the era could have.
Yet it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss the film on that basis. For one thing, compared to English language films of the time, Port of Call is strikingly frank about matters of sex; for another, it lacks the patronising moralising of other films. Berit, while young, has had sexual partners, and the film isn’t coy about this, and her relationship with Gösta starts with what the sailor clearly expects to be no more than a one-night stand. The film’s attitude towards Gösta is critical, but this is less because of the casual nature of their sexual encounter than the fact that Berit is a desperately lonely woman in need of comfort, whose life and choices are criticised and derided from all sides. Port of Call also doesn’t hold back with its social critique of the mores of the time: the story is clear that it is characters such as the social worker who threatens Berit with more time in the reformatory, and Berit’s own mother who vacillates between judging her daughter, belittling her and pitying her without understanding her own part in Berit’s situation, that are in the wrong, not Berit herself.
A later plot development seems even more progressive: Gertrud (Mimi Nelson), an acquaintance of Berit’s from the reformatory, becomes pregnant against her intentions and asks Berit to accompany her to an abortionist performing her services illegally. (Apparently abortions were legal in Sweden at the time, but only on “social medicinal grounds”; in general, they were not available to women who found themselves pregnant against their will.) Gertrud dies from complications in the aftermath of the procedure, but Port of Call does not frame this as divine judgment or just desserts, and its critique is clearly aimed at a society in which a young woman who doesn’t want to have a baby, and who most likely wouldn’t have the means to look after a child, has little choice other than this kind of unsafe procedure. Berit is put under pressure by the authorities and the police with another sentence in the reformatory, and she finally breaks down and tells them what they want to know about the abortionist, but the blame lies firmly with the authorities and their representatives: this – not the abortion itself, but the unsafe manner in which it is performed – is something that ought not to have happened, and it is not the fault of the young women choosing this option.
Finding this kind of clear social critique in Bergman’s films is a rare thing, and while he isn’t a moralist in his later films, he has always struck me as more of an existentialist. Even when later films address issues such as the roles of men and women in society, Bergman in his later films tends to frame this as a psychological and emotional issue before he makes any statements about society at large. Port of Call is also more optimistic about its characters and their chances: it ends with Gösta and Berit resolving their issues, Gösta apologising for his earlier judging of Berit, and the two deciding to give it a try. That sort of happy ending is decidedly not a Bergman thing, and I’m not sure it’s a great fit for his particular sensitivities, but it makes for an unexpectedly enjoyable change – and an interesting early attempt by the director to find his own directorial voice. Even if Port of Call isn’t a great Bergman film, it has more going for it than it seems at first.