Federico Fellini's faux historical reverie of a ocean liner carrying an ensemble of opera performers mourning the ashes of a legendary diva, a band of Serbian refugees, and a lovesick rhinoceros, all unwittingly on a rendezvous to incite World War I. Much of this plays like a bloated nostalgia trip chilled with a pervading sense of death by decadence, as this boatload of aesthetes spend their time in petty romantic intrigues and impromptu musical performances, shot mostly in pallid sepia and Hadean blue. Artifice is a major motif, as the boat sails under a matte sky through an ocean of glistening cellophane; Fellini brings the conceits of both theater and old-time moviemaking to the fore. The key aesthetic guiding light is the opera: despite Fellini's professed ambivalence towards opera, the medium's garish blend of base sentiment and rarefied artistry informs much of his own vision. Fellini takes multiple opportunities to poke fun of his operatic counterparts' pretensions; but by the end of the film, as one character spends his final moments clinging to a cinematic projection, it's clear that Fellini implicates himself in his character's hubris. Ultimately, it's an indulgent but moving (perhaps because of the indulgence) rumination on the aesthete lifestyle under the eternal shadow of history: as such it is perhaps the closest Fellini has come to making (as well as parodying) a Visconti film.
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THOUGH the occasion of Federico Fellini's ''And the Ship Sails On'' initially seems somber, the film often looks like a joyful act of cinematic prestidigitation. 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.
Like ''Amarcord,'' Mr. Fellini's new work is enchantingly stylized, a bold testament to the artifice of studio-made movies, which the onetime neo-realist director (''La Strada,'' ''Nights of Cabiria'') now makes his message as well as his style. Unlike ''Amarcord,'' however, ''And the Ship Sails On'' has no easily recognizable, visible center, which may be off-putting even to Fellini aficionados. It's not a film about anything as specific as childhood memories. Rather, it's a succession of mostly comic commentaries on art and artists, whose self-absorption Mr. Fellini finds both wickedly funny and very moving... It is about the mysterious endurance of the creative impulse, which the film maker appears to equate with mankind's capacity for survival. That, however, may be to weight the show with more than Mr. Fellini ever intended.
Vincent Canby, The New York Times, January 28, 1984
A toned-down, rather depressive Fellini allegory (1984) set aboard an ocean liner carrying the ashes of a famous diva to her final resting place, in the days just before the outbreak of World War I. Symbols of life (a rhinoceros suffering in the hold, a band of Gypsy refugees picked up by the well-meaning captain) fight it out with images of morbid aestheticism (the dead diva and her effete mourners), but fate, the great leveler, appears in the form of an Austrian battleship. Obviously, it isn't the intellectual content that's meant to carry the picture, but even Fellini's elaborate visuals seem timid and uninspired this time around.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Here we go again: the Italian buffo happily constructing his own world of elaborate grotesquerie in a studio far away from the problems of the real world. This time it is a marvellous ship, full of opera stars who set sail on the eve of WWI to bury one of their number. And as usual there are the anecdotes of droll inconsequence and pleasure - a symphony played on wine glasses, the divas serenading the stokers. When the boat picks up some refugees from the first flickerings of the war, a re-found social conscience seems about to edge in, only to be handled with the man's monumental off-handedness. But while Fellini may simply observe the chattering of his clowns and have absolutely nothing to say himself, it still (as usual) adds up to marginal doodlings which are unique, curious, ingratiatingly charming, and quietly nostalgic for the last great and peaceful age in Europe.
Fellini’s blatant artistic artifice works well in this somewhat heavy-handed allegory, and would have been an even better move if he had left well enough alone. Shooting on an indoor sound stage, Fellini’s blatantly unrealistic sets mirror the unnaturalness of the aristocrat’s shaky façade aboard this phoney ship. However, in a dubious move that may reflect Fellini’s lack of faith in his audience, he hits us over the head with this point near the movie’s end by going so far as to pull back the film’s mask to reveal that the entire production is on a movie set.
- Dan Jardine, The Apollo Movie Guide
One of Fellini's most visually sumptuous efforts, And the Ship Sails On basks in its own glorious artifice. Characters often make ironic remarks while staring at the ultra-saturated backdrops ("Look at that sunset -- it almost appears to be painted on!") and change costumes more often than their expressions. Like most Fellini films, this film was shot without sound and later dubbed in due to the motley international players (Jones' dubbing is especially distracting), but the Italian version is as authentic as any. The opening sequence ranks as one of the most audacious of Fellini's many cinematic feats; the film begins as a silent, sepia-toned depiction of the ship's preparations before departure, with sound effects gradually layered on as the passengers begin to arrive. One by one the actors begin to sing, with Plenizio's operatic works continuing to appear throughout the film as musical accompaniment. Upon the arrival of the ashes, the film bursts into color -- and the voyage begins. Without giving anything away, the finale is perhaps even more audacious and reminiscent of 8 1/2 in its puckish cinematic trickery.
All the voices are mixed at the same level and it sounds as though at most four actors were employed. There's no variation in tone, and some of the voices (the general who accompanies the Austrians, for example) sound like nothing human. Even when the actors are clearly saying their lines in Italian, the same lines as on the audio track, the sound doesn't even come close to corresponding to the image. You can make a case that this is a Brechtian device for distancing the audience from the seductive spectacle of cinema. In fact, the rest of the movie supports this idea: Fellini deliberately uses very artificial special effects and, at the end, has the camera pull back to show the ship's deck in its stage at Cinecittà. But I'm skeptical of film analyses that make subtle virtues out of apparent shortcomings, and whether these are deliberate technique or just indifference, it made the experience of watching the movie excruciating. To me, cinema's seductive qualities are kind of the point.
And the Ship Sails On feels like the work of someone who has fundamentally lost interest in other people; no one but the dead diva seems human. Now I'm not opposed to detached, academic filmmaking per se, but I think for a movie in which we don't care about the characters to work, it has to be well structured and technically competent. And the Ship Sails On, I am sorry to report, struck me as neither.
- Matthew Dessem for The Criterion Contraption
An extensive account of the musical references used throughout the film is provided by Enrique L. M. Ochoa for the Federico Fellini Internet Fan Club
Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver on the Criterion DVD:
Weak image in many respects (non-anamorphic, black borders around image, thin, hazy etc...). Unusually bloated subtitles and no digital extras add to the mediocrity. I kind of rate this Criterion DVD as I do this Fellini film - in the lower half of their respective achievements. I'm not aware of a better transfer so for Fellini complete-ists (and yes, I am one) this is the one to buy at present. Being a relative lack of respect in Fellini's ouvre it may never come out in a superior digital versatile disc form. It is no masterpiece but you may wish to snap it up for its quirky charm.
Noel Megahey for DVD Times on the UK Infinity Arthouse DVD:
Coming in the latter not-so-great half of the director’s career (which nevertheless certainly has its highlights) And The Ship Sails On is not one of Fellini’s best films. The subject matter remains the inevitable obsession over various aspects of the director’s own personality, but though it lacks the spontaneity and inspiration of his more obviously fictionalised autobiographical films, it manages to achieve a certain sense of melancholy and sadness at the coming to the end of an era (and thereby a filmmaking era) through its stylised period detail, elegant poise and beautiful cinematography. Although it cannot be faulted for the superb collection of extra features, Infinity’s DVD release of the film is very disappointing. The picture quality is generally excellent, showing the true beauty of the film where the Criterion Region 1 failed, but messing it up entirely with a non-anamorphic, single-layer transfer and an incorrect aspect ratio that crops the image. A wasted opportunity.
Federico Fellini on And the Ship Sails On
Excerpted from I, Fellini (1995) by Charlotte Chandler.
In And the Ship Sails On, I needed a large exterior to paint, so I used the wall of the Pantanella pasta factory. It was where my father, Urbano Fellini, had worked when he passed through Rome on his way back from forced labor in Belgium after World War I. It was while at the pasta factory in 1918 that he met my mother, Ida Barbiani, and carried her off, not on a white charger, but in a third-class coach on the train, with her full consent, away from her home, family, and social class in Rome.
By the time I made Intervista, from the perspective of the years that had passed, I had a better understanding of my parents than the view I had in my own youth. I had come to feel close to my father, and I fervently wished I could tell him so. I understood my mother better, too, and I no longer resented our differences. I recognized that life had not given either of them what they wanted, but I tried to give them in retrospect the understanding I gave to the characters in my films.
The deck of the ship in And the Ship Sails On was constructed on Stage 5 at Cinecittà. It was supported on hydraulic jacks and rocked realistically. Everyone but me was seasick. It was not because I am such a good sailor, but because I was so intensely involved in what I was doing that I was not aware of the rocking. The sea was created from polyethylene. The obviously artificial painted sunset looked beautiful. The appearance of artificiality is deliberate. At the end, I reveal the set and me behind a camera, the entire magic show.
I wasn’t certain about casting Freddie Jones in the role of Orlando. He would be a British type playing an Italian in a Mediterranean setting. Yet there was something about him that appealed to me for the part. After our initial interview, I rode with him to the airport. On the way back to Rome, I was still unsure. Then I saw a bus which had a large sign advertising Orlando ice cream. I took it as a favorable omen and allowed it to make the decision for me. Besides, I didn’t really have anyone else in mind.
In the opening, I show the contrast between the rushed confusion of the luxury liner’s first-class galley and the slow, stately pace of the dining room. The rich eat very slowly. They never have to worry about shortages. They are more concerned about how they look while chewing.
I was concerned about having lovely food for the people to eat. It had to be photogenic so it would look enticing on the screen. I wanted food that was fresh and deliciously prepared for inspiring the actors. It was important that it smelled good, and we looked forward to eating it afterwards. Maybe everyone did better and there were fewer takes so we could finish before the food got cold.
There is nothing too small for me to do on the set. I move a table, I arrange someone’s curl, I pick up a piece of paper from the floor. It is all part of making the film. At home, I cannot make a cup of coffee because I am too impatient to wait for water to boil.
And the Ship Sails On has a great deal to do with opera, a subject I would have avoided in my earlier pictures. It was only in later life that I came to appreciate our Italian operatic tradition. I suppose the reason I said and wrote so much about not liking opera is because every Italian is supposed to love opera, especially every Italian man. My brother, Riccardo, went around the house singing. Love of opera isn’t restricted to Italy, of course, but it’s more widespread here than in America.
All my life I’ve had a natural resistance to whatever everyone likes, or wants, or is “supposed” to do. I never was interested in soccer, either to play or to watch, and for a man to admit that in Italy is almost like admitting that you aren’t a man at all. I do not like to belong to political parties or to clubs. Partly this is probably in my black-sheep nature, but I think another very real reason is I remember the Black Shirts.I was a child in a time when we wore the outfits of our school, or we wore the black shirts of fascism, and we were supposed to question nothing. That has made me question everything. I was always suspicious, not wanting to be one of the sheep going to slaughter. So sometimes I may have missed out on a pleasure the sheep enjoyed which I could have had without becoming a lamb chop.
Now I have developed a late interest in opera, but it’s difficult to admit you have interest in a subject in which you have vehemently denied having any interest for so long.
I have not seen the film since it was finished, but I wonder how it would seem now in light of what has been happening in Yugoslavia. Would it seem too light, too dated? Or would it speak to audiences more clearly?
The rhinoceros is a distant cousin of the sick zebra I helped to wash when I was a boy and the circus came to Rimini. My theory about why the zebra was sick is that he didn’t have any sex in his life. How could he feel well? There was, after all, only one zebra in that circus. The rhinoceros is lovesick.
Only one rhinoceros is the same as only one zebra.
More on Federico Fellini
Everyone lives in his own fantasy world, but most people don't understand that. No one perceives the real world. Each person simply call his private, personal fantasies the Truth. The difference is that I know I live in a fantasy world. I prefer it that way and resent anything that disturbs my vision.
- Fellini in I, Fellini, ed. by Charlotte Chandler, 1995
A visionary with the most colorfully personal of dreams at his command, Fellini was the first European director whose name entered our language. Felliniesque will be forever synonymous with the bizarre, misty dreamscapes, pan-erotic fantasies, scathingly profane humor, and rushing rivers of consciousness. He was the Casanova of the cinema, and no director has so repeatedly and triumphantly seduced the public consciousness.
- November 12, 1993 obituary in Entertainment Weekly
The Fellini oeuvre departs from the neorealist dictum of character determined by historical circumstance to the personalized character steered, for better or worse, by his or her subjectivity (Luci del varietà, Lo sceicco bianco, I vitelloni). Character "subjectivity" includes questions of spirituality and salvation (Il bidone, La strada, Le notti di Cabiria), and La dolce vita points to the failure of the boom to promise either. 8½ takes up the theme of auteurial self-consciousness which then resurfaces in Roma and Intervista, and has its distaff expression in Giulietta degli spiriti. Fellini also supplied essays on fascist Italy (Amarcord), male/female relations (La città delle donne), and the death of variety showbiz (Ginger e Fred). His career compresses the comparable progress in literature from 19th century realism to the reflexive post-modernity of compatriots Italo Calvino and Luigi Pirandello. Exposing the means of fiction, playwrighting, or filmmaking in Fellini's case (in contrast to the neorealist posture of delivering an unmediated story with newsreel aesthetics), all these authors uncover the "ploy" of authorship. It's as if Fellini critiqued realism as an impossible notion by pointing up its fabrication and adding the suppressed element of the fantastic. In his own words, "I make a film in the same manner in which I live a dream..."
- from Great Directors biography by Antonia Shanahan for Senses of Cinema
The fall of individualism is, interestingly, linked to the trajectory of Fellini's critical reputation. In a 1950s and 1960s ideological climate of heightened individualism, in which artists were marketed as cultural heroes and film was elevated to the status of artform, Fellini became, as [one critic] put it, the "director as superstar"--for academics as well as for a larger public. However, more recently, in a cultural and theoretical climate which has come to deny the autonomy of the individual, as well as the artwork, the modern artist-as-romantic-hero was debunked, and Fellini became viewed as an egoistic anachronism.
Biography at Books and Writers
Biography by One World Films
Gerry Manacsa at Out of Balance explores three image archetypes found in Fellini's films
Interview for Bright Lights Film Journal,originally published in 1994