Directed By: Federico Fellini
Starring: Freddie Jones, Barbara Jefford, Peter Cellier
Tag line: "One of the world's great directors invites you to join him on a voyage"
Trivia: Screened out of competition at the 40th Venice Film Festival, where it received a fifteen-minute standing ovation
While it’s definitely more “grounded” than some of Fellini’s other films (Juliet of the Spirits, Roma, Satyricon), 1983’s And the Ship Sails On also has its moments of fantasy, which, coupled with its World War One-era story, results in a gorgeous, often captivating motion picture that strikes the perfect balance between whimsy and reality.
It’s 1914, and the luxury liner Gloria N, , filled with artists, singers, and government officials, is on its way to the island of Erimo to scatter the ashes of Edmea Tetua (Janet Suzman), considered the finest soprano ever to grace the Italian stage. With journalist Orlando (Freddie Jones) as our guide, we meet many of the elite who have gathered for this melancholy event, including Edmea’s fellow soprano Idelbranda (Barbara Jefford); Tenors Fuciletto (Victor Poletti) and Sabatino Lepori (Carlo Di Giacomo); British aristocrat Sir Reginald Dongby (Peter Cellier) and his nymphomaniac wife Lady Violet (Norma West); Russian singer Ziloev (Maurice Barrier); and the Grand Duke of Austria Hungary (Fiorenzo Serra), who is traveling with his advisors as well as his blind sister, the Princess Lherimia (Pina Bausch). During a voyage that lasts only a few days, these honored guests will share laughs and tears, and along the way be pulled into a conflict that set the stage for the First World War.
Like any good Fellini film, the characters in And the Ship Sails On are a boisterous, flamboyant bunch, and many of their escapades are equally outrageous. While on a tour of the ship’s boiler room, Fuciletti, Lepori and Idelbranda entertain the workers by singing to them, and in the process try to out-do one another (getting into a professional “battle” of sorts, where the applause of the workers is used to determine the winner), Later on, Ziloev will show off his talents by hypnotizing a chicken with his voice; and several of Edmea’s friends and associates participate in a séance, during which a medium supposedly contacts the late singer’s spirit (a sequence that actually gets a bit creepy before it’s over).
Fellini also breaks the fourth wall by having the journalist Orlando, who acts as narrator, address the camera directly while revealing the identities and back stories of the various personalities he encounters. There’s even a brief moment when we’re taken behind-the-scenes of this movie, watching as Fellini coaches his actors on the elaborate, hydraulic-controlled set built especially for the film. All this, plus a handful of scenes involving a rhinoceros that’s being stowed below decks, do their part in making And the Shop Sails On a truly “Fellini-esque” affair.
But the movie delves, quite frequently, into more serious matters as well, including professional jealousy (Idelbranda cannot bear the thought of forever living in Edmea’s shadow, and tries desperately to uncover the late singer’s “secret” to success); marital infidelity (Sir Reginald, a very jealous man, is driven nearly insane by his wife’s dalliances); and unrequited love (Count Bassano, played by Pasquale Zito, has fallen hard for the deceased Edmea, and has built a shrine to her in his stateroom).
Considering the time period in which it takes place, it stands to reason that And the Ship Sails On would also feature plenty of political turmoil, most of which revolves around the events that led to the outbreak of World War I. About halfway through their journey, the ship’s Captain (Antonio Vezza) stops to pick up some Serbian refugees, who fled their country after the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on them (following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by a Serb revolutionary). Naturally, the Grand Duke’s entourage is none too pleased that the Serbs are on-board, and insists that they be separated from the rest of the passengers. In addition, an Austrian battleship eventually intercepts the Gloria N., demanding that the captain immediately turn over the Serb refugees. While the fantasy-laced sequences in And the Ship Sails On are, indeed, fun to watch, these doses of reality are just as vital to the overall story, and do their part to keep things on an even keel.
It may have come late in the maestro’s career, yet based on this movie, I’d say Fellini’s skills were as sharp in 1983 as they ever were. Funny and sad, invigorating and reflective, And the Ship Sails On is a remarkable motion picture.