a ship to india (1947)
As the reflections of moving waters dance across every frame, Bergman spins a film that touches on the familiar beats of American film noir in more ways than one. A Ship to India features extended flashback, a femme fatale, and oedipal overtones with a father who doubles as the film’s “Mr. Big” in fittingly distorted expressionist images. The images that Bergman conjures are the film’s high point, as key sequences of lovers stealing away and night falling aboard a ship and all hypnotic assortments of light and shadow glitter through the frame. The noir influences run deep as our central character is pulled deeper into conflict (driven by the appearance of Sally), unable to ever return to his state of normalcy, only to move beyond it at some time in the future. The chief image among them always returns to the light on the top of the water, the way it moves, the way Sally seems to lurk around each corner of the frame the haunt the entire film. This concept is played out visually at an early stage for Bergman, and the film itself plays as more of a curiosity to what the filmmaker would later call upon in his masterworks. Two lovers on a ship floating to their destinations, the desire to rid one’s life of the paternal influence that crushes their soul, all is embedded within the narrative. Yet the film’s story of two of society’s unloved outcasts finding one another and falling in love, only to find themselves unable to accept the love of the other, never really holds enough weight to carry the picture.
The domineering father who procures the lover that his crippled and abused son eventually bonds with, the son who must leave for seven years before feeling worthy to assume the role of lover, the woman who cannot accept love in return for her own and relies on being kept, all are various sides of a similar coin. As the father degrades, the son improves, as the woman becomes enraptured with both as a means of escaping her current survival situation, she loses her way and must return to the stage. The mother stands waiting for the inevitable and crippling effects of illness to befall her husband so she can be his only lifeline. Each of these plot threads align to form a sweeping narrative that brings harrowed lovers to a place of desperation, but never coalesces into a thematic central point that can resonate any further. The pools of light collected on our characters’ faces makes the deepest impression, the eye light that highlights their mind at work in the dark, the kind of subdued expressionism that marked the era and was so beautifully used in the late 1940’s, A Ship to India has its reasons to be viewed, though it doesn’t stand on its own outside of Bergman’s filmography. It is a story filled with the yearning to be someone else or somewhere else, each of our players here is somehow mired in their own private doldrum, longing to drift away, but we suspect they are scuttled like the ship itself, something in their subconscious holding them there. Bergman crafts freudian noir on the level that was coming out of Hollywood with the film, though his lack of a clear dramatic pull is what keeps it from rising above.
At its best, though, the film can speak in the language of its characters, of ambition and apathy and the loss of will to get to those imagined destinations. The ship may be destined, as they say, for America or Africa or India, but here it sits in the harbor, with a crew ready to mutiny and walk out while the captain fiddles as his own life burns in front of him. The characters despise themselves, and in many ways one another, though they don’t seem capable of taking their own path in life, instead sticking on by the side of the one they hate, perhaps they find it futile to even try. Bergman wisely frames the film with the salvation of our lead, Johannes, so that we know the impending feeling of doom for much of the narrative won’t last. For the young director’s focused sequences of visual depth we are in a world of pure cinema, the trip to an old wind mill, the nights on the ship, the moments that really sink in are worthy experiments that Bergman would eventually ring out to their true potential; here they are small concepts taking their first steps. They are bright spots on the water in an otherwise dull and muddied sea, though the merits of A Ship to India cannot be overlooked.