"Did you, with your red toenails, ever see a dead person?"
Suicide attempts and abortion issues, drink and gambling problems, sexual hang-ups – we’re back in familiar territory for Bergman in another frank film about ‘real’ relationships that miraculously has been passed as a PG by our friends at the BBFC. Originally it was awarded an X rating a decade after its making, but these days foreign language films are deemed to be more accessible to the culturally enlightened.
Gösta is a casual port worker, hired On The Waterfront style on a daily basis. Pay is an ephemeral thing to be used as quickly as possible, either by playing with card-sharks, downing liquor or picking up girls. One such pick-up is Berit who he meets at a portside disco. Berit is a nice girl (after all, she doesn’t smoke) but also seriously screwed up. Depressed and suicidal (we first encounter her part way through a suicide attempt at the waterfront) she is in need of companionship and affection, something Gösta seems to offer and her mother does not. Berit’s inability to cope with life in a single parent home has led to her spending much of her youth flitting from one institute to another. However in order to secure a job in a factory, she must endure life with her mother, a double-edged sword that offers both independence and parental shackles. Far better to run away with hunky Gösta. But will he be able to give her the support she needs? It seems so… at first. Their tempestuous relationship tears apart and Berit seeks solace in any arms she can find. And then things go downhill…
Ultimately the problem with Port of Call lies with its over-worked melodrama. Bergman and his actors manage to keep a commendably realist feel to the film that put many of the modern hand-wringing social realist film-makers to shame, but ultimately the trials of the main heroine are so mundanely dreadful that there is little to empathise with. The irony that she spends much of the film suicidal but incapable of acting on it successfully rings of obvious manipulation, as does the frankly unbelievable conclusion.
These are the main snags to the film though – otherwise it is a worthy work; the flashback structure reveals the source of Berit’s predicaments slowly and there is much to be seen in the details. Gösta’s bravura matched with his unexpected ‘softer feminine side’ make for a far more complex character than the whoring, fighting, drinking gambling-man tag would suggest. Berit’s downfall is a result of her family and society – her parents’ divorce, the succession of reformatories all have taken their toll
and led to a downward spiral of self-loathing. That the pair can make any kind of relationship shows Bergman’s ability to depict his characters as more than one dimensional or polarised, a far more mature approach to writing than just providing traits, and one which engages the viewer far more. That the film as a whole cannot quite deal with characters that populate it (the mother, the prostitute and the social worker all appear as well rounded and complex as the central couple) and tries too hard to cram in as many issues as possible (treatment of foreign workers, society’s hypocrisy, divorce, violence, gambling, alcoholism, prostitution, backstreet abortions etc) makes this one of Bergman’s less rounded creations, albeit a fascinating one.