Directed by Federico Fellini
Orlando: “Did you know that a rhinoceros gives very good milk?”
Why do people say that Fellini's Amarcord (1973) was his last good film? True, it is one of his greatest masterpieces. After the saccharine soaked spectacle of Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and the nonsensical narrative orgy of opulence in Satyricon (1969), it was refreshing to see Fellini return to a more realistic format (i.e. his hometown) where his trademark menagerie of characters could run wild and wreak havoc. But why are critics so eager to draw the line in the sand after Amarcord and ignore the rest of his work? It is possible that many critics believed that it was impossible to follow up such a film. But I have my doubts.......
The point is, those critics who are foolish enough to stay away from Fellini's work after 1973 are fools. By doing so, they miss one of Fellini's greatest artistic triumphs, a movie that may literally be one of the most under-appreciated movies of all time (and I do not say that lightly), E la nave va, or The Ship Sails On...
And what a ship! The plot takes place on a gigantic luxury liner where members of the upper class have gathered to mourn Edmea Tetua, a recently deceased opera singer. They plan to sail to her birthplace, the island of Erimo, where they will release her ashes. What a brilliant move on Fellini's part to shoot a movie on a ship! In such a confined area, it forces his eccentric cast to bounce around and collide with each other like ping pong balls instead of being able to just drop away out of the movie like characters in Amarcord . Thankfully, we have a guide throughout the madness, an Italian journalist named Orlando (Freddie Jones) who directs us around the ship, fills us in on all the juicy gossip concerning the characters that we meet, and all the while keeping us informed on the plot. Just like Giudizio, the town idiot, from Amarcord , he speaks to the audience by talking right into the camera, a fascinating idea that a pitiful few other directors (like Bergman and Allen) have tried.
Unlike his early neorealist pictures that focused on one or two characters, Fellini directs the focus on a true menagerie of characters. In a brilliant review on the Internet Movie Database, author “zetes” from Saint Paul, MN, sums up Fellini's approach to his characters:
“The characters in [this film] are drawn more broadly, with more attention paid to unique physical features and behavioral quirks. This is all in an attempt to have the audience identify the characters - or, more precisely, caricatures (before he made movies, Fellini worked as a caricaturist on the streets of Rome) - in a stereotypical way.
And stereotypes we get. We have English aristocrats, singers, Grand Dukes, prime ministers, princesses, and counts. They interact with each other for the first half of the movie as we would expect characters this late in Fellini's career to. It is completely devoid of reality. It is a perfect bourgeoisie playground. When a giant Russian basso invades the kitchens so he can find a chicken to hypnotize with his voice, the cooks are more than happy to oblige. Excuse me, but don't they have a massive ocean liner to cook for? How could they possibly have time for a hypnotized chicken? Or consider the scene when two opera singers go into the engine room whereon soot-covered workers beg for them to sing. They stop working as the two singers compete in a contest of vocal prowess, all the while perilously leaning over the iron balcony that separates them from a several hundred feet drop. At the end, the workers cheer and applaud and the singers exit the engine room just as clean as they were when they entered, despite all that nasty coal and dust in the air.
But neither of these events holds a candle to the greatest crisis that the bourgeois passengers have to face. As the voyage continues, a horrific stench begins wafting out of the ships hold. When the passengers go down to investigate, they discover the source of the offending odor: a love-sick rhinoceros.
Let that sink in for a moment. The worst problem that the passengers must face is a love-sick megafauna that inconveniences them with its smell. The horror! But don't worry, the crew pull the beast up to the deck, spray it with a hose, and send it back down into the hold with fresh water and hay. Thank heavens the crisis was averted by the valiant crew! Now the passengers can hold hands lovingly and stare into each others eyes as the laugh about the implications of a smelly mammal. And so, the rich return to the lovely lives as they press onwards to their somber destination. All is good and well in the world.
At least until the third day of the voyage when they awake to find the deck crowded with shipwrecked Serbians fleeing to Italy after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.
Suddenly, their world is destroyed. Some of the passengers believe that they are terrorists, so the captain is forced to move all of the refugees to a corner of the ship. Here we see Fellini's trademark neorealist touch appear for the first time in decades. We become aware of the passengers follies and feel shame. The bourgeois travelers feel it too. They feel Augusto's shame from Il Bidone (1955) or Zampanò's from La Strada (1954). Despite this, the aristocrats try to continue living the way the were before. They go into the grand dining room to dine, but wait, they can see the refugees through the windows. Some try to ignore them. Others pity them. Maybe they can spare just one plate of food......
Movie logic dictates that when two completely different groups of people collide in a light-hearted movie, they will find a way to cross over their divisions and become friends. The same applies to this movie, as the two classes dance and sing the night away. Serbian music blends with opera, beggar dances with king, and there is goodwill towards all men.
Unfortunately, this cannot last. They are interrupted by flagship of the Austrio-Hungarian naval fleet, demanding a return of the refugees. The passengers adamantly refuse. They can't imagine the Austrio-Hungarians actually firing on them. They are royalty, after all. Nobody can touch them. The captain, realizing just how powerful those guns could be, stalls for time. He asks them to first let them disperse Tetua's ashes at Erimo. The Austrio-Hungarians immediately agree. Who didn't love the illustrious Edmea Tetua? So, the ritual is carried out. Tetua's ashes are released to the winds. The Serbians gather their meager belongings and prepare to leave.
I would tell you about the end, but that would be criminal. I cannot deprive you of one of the most emotional endings in the history of cinema. Oh, I can tell you that both ships end up on the bottom of the ocean, but that doesn't give anything away. That would be like telling you that Janet Leigh gets stabbed in the shower in Psycho. Of course it is a powerful cinematic sequence, but you can't say that you know about the scene until you actually see Janet Leigh getting stabbed. The same goes for the climax of And the Ships Sails On...The ships sink, but how they sink, who goes down with them, who gets away on life boats, what do we see getting destroyed, etc, etc. THESE are the defining characteristics of the ending.
And the Ship Sails On... should rightfully be respected as one of Fellini's masterpieces. It combined the social realism of his early work with the visual gymnastics of his later work into one uncontrollable, almost inconceivable work of art. It reconciled the styles of one of cinema's most consistently innovative and daring directors. When it was screened at the 40th Venice Film Festival, it received a fifteen-minute standing ovation. And yet fifteen years later, it would almost be forgotten about. Oh well, the ship sails on, and on, and on...............
Left me gasping for air...,
7 September 2001
Author: zetes from Saint Paul, MN