A lie is always more interesting than the truth. Lies are the soul of showmanship and shows. Fiction may have a greater truth than everyday, obvious reality The one shows need not be authentic. As a rule, they are better if they aren't. What must be authentic is the feeling one is trying to see and to express. --Federico Fellini
And the Ship Sails On begins as if it were a silent film made in 1914. The first images are jerky, sepia-toned shots of people arriving at a port to board a luxury liner, the Gloria N. The camera whirs as it pans the busy boarding scene,capturing some passengers posing for photographs, focusing on people who look into the lens with silly smiles and gestures. This simulated silent film , complete with scratches, as if it were an old, wom-out print, records the arrival of cars and groups of people and finally a plumed hearse. One particular figure smiles at the camera, adjusts his hat, and launches into a Harpo Marx hat-swinging routine. Suddenly, an old-fashioned caption flashes his thoughts: "Get the news, tell them what's going on. But how does anybody know?" Gradually, harbor noises replace the camera whir, a soft strain of music begins, and miraculously, color seeps into the image. The music intensifies, and the passengers suddenly burst into a chorus from Guiseppe Verdi's La forza del destino as they board the ship.
A wonderful lie! Federico Fellini, the master showman, has performed another amazing trick with his magical medium. This brilliant opening is the overture to his genial celebration of those two most "artificial" of the artscinema and opera-the main passengers on the Gloria N.
The plot of the film is as zany and implausible as the plot of any opera and serves the same function-it is an excuse for grand gestures and song. As the narrator, Mr. Orlando (Freddie Jones), tells the audience, the elite of the international music world have sailed off together on a funeral procession to honor the request of the world's greatest soprano, Edmea Tetua (Janet Suzman), to have her ashes scattered off the coast of her native island of Erimo. The voyage is the perfect grand-operatic gesture to honor the greatest artist of that extravagant art form.
The voyage is made greater still by the intrusion of "historical reality" into this world of wonderful artifice. On the third morning of the voyage, the mourners discover that the ship has taken on unexpected passengers, a band of Serbian refugees. They are fleeing the Austrians because a Serb has just assassinated the Archduke Francis Ferdinand at Sarajevo-an act which becomes the overture to World War 1. After the two worlds of the privileged and the peasants have had time to communicate through the universal language of music, the Gloria N. is suddenly confronted by an Austro-Hungarian warship, the crew of which demands the Serbians. Following a few anxious moments, one of the passengers, the Austrian Grand Duke of Herzog (Fiorenzo Serra), a fervent admirer of Edmea, negotiates a truce with the warship. And the ship sails on.
Reaching Erimo at dawn, the passengers assemble on deck for the requiem and proceed to sing an "Oratorio in Memoria" as Edmea's ashes are scattered by the wind. The service is barely over when the warship reappears and again the crew demands the Serbs. Now the action is transformed into an operatic performance, with the passengers singing again from La forza del destino as the Serbs and the Grand Duke row to the warship in lifeboats. For the grand finale, as they lustily sing, a young Serbian in the lifeboat throws a bomb into the warship, causing a series of explosions that ultimately destroy it, but not before the crew retahates by sinking the Gloria N. Untouched by all the cannon fire, Edmea's mourners continue singing as they descend into the lifeboats.
To modulated strains of Verdi, the camera suddenly destroys the illusion as it cuts to a slow pan of the film crew filming the fake ship in the fake sea. A final cut shows Mr. Orlando in a lifeboat. He completes the story by assuring the audience that all the passengers were saved. As he talks, the film gradually reverses the magical process of its beginning, transforming it self back into a sepia-toned, scratchy film that shows its age by the use of an iris-in on a long shot of Mr. Orlando in his lifeboat as the silent camera whirs to a close. It has all been pure artifice-a marvelous, extravagant fiction by the master showman.
The outlandish plot exists for Fellini to show off yet another collection of his famous grotesques. His comic ship of fools carries the range of bizarre characters from the world of opera: Italy's greatest and vainest tenors; two buxom mezzo-sopranos; Edmea's decrepit singing teachers; a Russian basso profundo whose mesmerizing voice puts a chicken to sleep; and the world's second-best soprano, Hildebranda Cuffari (Barbara Jefford), who mourns the fact that she does not have Edmea's voice. In addition, Edmea's admir ers include the obese and androgynous Austrian Grand Duke of Herzog, his blind sister, the Princess (Pina Bausch), and their entourage; a sexually kinky couple, the English impresario Sir Reginald Dongby (Peter Cellier) and his wife, Lady Violet (Norma West); Edmea's exotic lover, Count Bassano (Pasquale Zito); a homosexual comedian; and a journalist, Mr. Or lando. These characters, as is usual in a Fellini film, have no depth or development; they simply add to his wonderful menagerie of memorable physiognomies.
The three-day voyage to Erimo allows plenty of time for each of the major characters to entertain the audience. Mr. Orlando, the journalist, is the genial narrator who addresses the camera directly, speaking to the audi once in intimate, confidential terms. He acts as the ringmaster who intro Ouces each performance. Fellini has fun with this bumbling storyteller, who seems to be a comic alter ego of the filmmaker himself. Mr. Orlando never quite knows what is going on or the meaning of the event that he is narrat log. He makes a halfhearted effort to interpret the voyage seriously: "I *rite ... I narrate. But just what am I narrating? An ocean voyage? The voyage of life! That is not narrated, it is embarked upon. It's banal? It has already been said? And better? Well, everything's been said ... and done." This sounds like Fellini poking fun at himself as storyteller and at the notion that his, ship is carrying some heavy cargo of symbolic meaning.
Mr. Orlando's best scene is his interview with the Grand Duke of Herzog in the fencing room. Mr. Orlando, through an interpreter, asks the duke for ,Word of comfort, of hope" about the tense international situation [LicallY, the beginning of World War I is a few days away). They entirely understand each other. After a series of comic exchanges, the duke says, ! Poom!" and laughs. They all laugh, thinking it is a joke, as Mr. Orlando unknowingly interprets the duke's statement correctly: "It's a tragedy. A catastrophe!"
Count Bassano, Edmea's lovesick lover, is the most striking of the ship's fools. A perfect caricature of the romantic lover, he worships at a shrine he has constructed of Edmea's sacred relics.
Camille Saint-Saens' hauntingly beautiful "The Swan" and Johann Strauss's "The Blue Danube" twice during the film. Edmea's singing teachers enchant the audience in the ship's kitchen with a version of Franz Schubert's "Moment musicaux" on the glassware. Fellini ends the comic singing contest in the furnace room with "La donna e mobile" from Rigoletto, and Claude Debussy's "Claire de lune" haunts Count Bassano's adoration scenes. The most moving moment of the film is the funeral service for Edmea. When the ship has finally reached its destination and all the passengers are solemnly gathered on deck for the requiem, a gramophone plays Edmea Tetua singing an air from Aida, "0 patria mia." The lyric beauty of her voice makes all who listen voyagers on Fellini's ship; all pay homage to the miraculous gift of song.
And the Ship Sails On may lack the thematic depth and the brilliant visual imaginativeness of Fellini's masterpieces La Strada (1954), 8112 (1963), and Amarcord (1973); nevertheless, Fellini, the grand ringmaster of film, has created a delightful show with his magical tricks. He has taken viewers on a whimsical, fantastical, fictional voyage that indeed has a "greater truth than everyday, obvious reality."
Films and Filming. No. 357, June, 1984, p. 12. Films in Review. XXXV, April, 1984, p. 238. Hudson Review XXXVII, Autumn, 1984, p. 457. Macleans. XCVII, August 27, 1984, p. 55. National Review. XXXVI, April 20, 1984, p. 55. The New Republic. CXC, February 13, 1984, p. 24. New Statesman. CVII, April 27, 1984, p. 27. Newsweek. CIII, January 23, 1984, p. 67. Sight and Sound. L111, Summer, 1984, p. 225. Time. CXXIII, January 23, 1984, p. 67.