The most important aspect of my fledgling quest through cinema history is accepting how many films I’ve never seen and experiencing as many as possible. I hadn’t seen a single Bergman film before purchasing his Criterion Collection boxset, and A Ship to India is only the second in the collection after Crisis, which makes me a Bergman noob.
A Ship to India is an Oedipal-lite tale of a father and son’s conflict over controlling their family business and the love of a woman. This conflict poisons every aspect of their relationship and eventually drives a wedge so deep between the two that after returning home from a seven year stint on a cargo ship the son’s (Johannes) reaction to learning his father (Alexander) has died is no more than a shrug. This moment is actually at the beginning of the film, the rest of the story is conveyed through Johannes’ dreamlike flashback sequence that exposes every tragic event leading up to this seemingly cold response to paternal loss. This convention becomes somewhat problematic because the flashback sequence is presented as if it originates from Johannes’ own memory of the events seven years ago, yet included are scenes to which he was not a witness. How could this be? I guess it doesn’t matter. Perhaps he simply concocted his own narrative and that’s what we’re seeing. Perhaps the flashback concept was conceived to fix narrative issues with the original script and that’s why it feels oddly tacked on? Like I said, it probably doesn’t matter.
The story is extremely melodramatic, full of adultery, attempted murder, and domestic violence. It’s like two weeks of daytime soap opera plots crammed into a two hour movie. Sometimes you’ll have scenes that either lose something in translation or just make no sense in the reality of the film. For example, there’s a scene where the Johannes is arguing with a frenzied woman who’s inexplicably locked herself in a bathroom and refuses to come out and leave with him. Confused, he tries to reason with her and coax her out but her belligerence only increases. He finally threatens to break the door down to get her out, to which she responds that if he does that she’ll throw herself from the bathroom window. He pauses as if wondering if he could call her bluff, and then a voice comes from behind him where her two roommates, who’ve been watching the whole scene, say with almost perfect comedic timing “There’s no window in that bathroom.” That’s all the information he needed to break their bathroom door down. No sooner than the door is splintered does the woman who was locked inside throw herself into his arms and say something like “Ok, I’ll go with you, I don’t know what I was so upset about.” What?! All of that and we don’t get any justification? What does this mean? Why was it included? My best guess is it has something to do with needing some third act dramatics but that’s the best I can come up with.
The plot doesn’t make this a film worth watching, Ingmar Bergman makes this a film worth watching. Imagine every amazing windmill shot or dramatic sequence in Foreign Correspondent but then imagine they were all done practically and in-camera. That’s A Ship to India, that’s Bergman. It’s gorgeous, it’s beautifully shot, every image is masterfully composed. There’s even this indie film quality to some shots. For example there’s one where the camera is clearly positioned in a ferris wheel car and follows the action across a fairgrounds in one shot that’s ingenuity feels reminiscent of early 90’s cheap production tricks a la the hockey stick boom mic used in Clerks.
I’m compelled to compare Bergman to his directing contemporaries and no one springs to mind more than Hitchcock. I know nothing of their relationship (if any) and can only compare their work on screen. A Ship to India premiered in September 1947 a year after Hitchcock’s Notorious debuted. It’s difficult to compare the two films because Notorious had all the advantages of a spoiled rich kid. Studio money, special effects, and world class actors. All of these advantages and it would be the 33rd film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the greatest director of the time. That’s cool and all, but A Ship to India was only Bergman’s third film. Advantage rookie.
The Criterion Collection’s Bergman Box is an absolute thing of beauty. I despise it’s awkwardly large packaging but so far the movies are great and I don’t know how I could’ve seen them without Criterion’s release.