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DIRECTED BY: Federico Fellini
FEATURING: , Barbara Jefford
PLOT: Loaded with distinguished guests, a transatlantic luxury liner sets off at the dawn of WWI to bury the ashes of a deceased opera diva on the island where she was born.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It may not be top-tier Fellini, but middle-tier Fellini still sails past most of the competition—at least, when the director sticks to his odder impulses and remembers to pack a pachyderm in his hold.
COMMENTS: As befits the film’s 1914 setting, And the Ship Sails On starts out as a silent film, showing a crowd of onlookers watching celebrities arriving to board a luxury liner, complete with slapstick pratfalls for the amusement of the children. The only soundtrack is the quiet whirring of a projector. Then, sparse background noises slowly creep into the sound mix, followed by the introduction of a piano score and sparse formal dialogue. The black and white fades into color, and in about ten minutes we move from what could have been vintage newsreel footage into a full-fledged late Fellini movie.
Besides the revered ashes of incomparable soprano Edmea Tetua, various musical dignitaries and well-wishers board the funeral ship, including Ildebranda, a diva whose insecurities are exposed by the praise lavished on a deceased woman whose fame she will never attain; and a trio of elderly choirmasters; an English aristocrat and his insatiable wife; a portly, baby-faced Prussian Grand Duke and his scheming retinue; a homosexual; a mysterious young beauty; a rhinoceros; and a dozen-plus others. They are all introduced and commented on by Orlando, a journalist who’s documenting the voyage and who often speaks directly to the audience. Later on, rafts of Serbian refugees fleeing the onset of World War I will board to swell the onboard throng. Along the way, the passengers will play a wineglass symphonetta, stage an impromptu vocal competition in the boiler room, attend a seance, and (temporarily) face down an Austro-Hungarian battleship (or, at least, a Hasbro model of a warship).
The Fellini film And the Ship Sails On most resembles is Amarcord, in its choice to focus on a community instead of a central character and on a collection of vignettes instead of a single story. Unlike the classic of the previous decade, this one is not anchored by the director’s nostalgia and love for his subject. The destination is fixed—the passengers will eventually end up spreading Edmea Tetua’s ashes into the Mediterranean—but seldom has a journey seemed so aimless; it’s a road trip movie without a road. It may be Fellini’s last “great” movie, and at the very least his last epic; but in many ways, it feels like the work of a young artist, playing promiscuously with different styles and ideas like he’s just trying things out, still figuring out what works. Sets and psychologies both change from realistic and detailed to artificial caricatures, and Fellini drops in postmodern distancing bits, like a character who remarks, “How marvelous! It looks fake!” while gazing at an obvious matte sunset. Maybe the maestro is just being playful as old age approaches; this is a movie whose takeaway point, after all, is praise for the salubrious properties of rhino milk.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“At its best moments ‘And the Ship Sails On’ floats serenely above the realities of ordinary movies – not to deny the validity of those realities but to expand the imagination.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)