And the Ship Sails On is Federico Fellini’s best movie in the decade since the Oscar-winning Amarcord in 1973. Unfortunately, that’s not saying too much, because Fellini’s output in those years has been limited to two underwhelming features (Casanova and City of Women) and one longish featurette (Orchestra Rehearsal).
It must have been an odd time for the filmmaker who, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, was considered a giant of international cinema. Fellini’s interest in grotesques and eccentrics made his movies increasingly obscure to even the arthouse audience that had supported him in the days of 8 ½ and Nights of Cabiria.
And the Ship Sails On finds Fellini in a mellow mood, displaying a crowd-pleasing form that has been absent since Amarcord. When a great opera star (played by Janet Suzman, in a silent film flashback) dies, her last wishes call for her ashes to be strewn out over the sea near an island in the Adriatic.
Not only that, but a hand-picked group of acquaintances and colleagues must cruise to the island for the ceremony. This voyage becomes the film, as the odd group (composed of theater people and royalty) socialize in variously bizarre ways, on what we come to assume is the ship of life.
Fellini has provided a host for the journey, who introduces us to all the main characters; he’s a journalist who is supposedly reporting on the film and who often speaks directly to the audience. English actor Freddie Jones plays this character, Orlando, with a kind of Chaplinesque warmth, which is often a contrast to the stiff-necked opera people on board.
The film takes place in 1914 for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the beginning of World War I, an event that would start the breakdown of the kind of strict social order in evidence in the film. Fellini emphasizes this when he has the ship’s captain pick up a load of Serbian peasants; an act which scandalizes the upper crust.
But before long, the two groups find themselves drawn together by a common passion—music. The gentry and the peasantry dance together one memorable night in a scene which reminds us that, for all his weirdnesses, Fellini has an optimistic—even, sometimes, sentimental—view of mankind.
And the film is set in 1914 because that’s the dawn of movies, and Fellini wants us to be aware of this film as a piece of cinema, not as an approximation of reality. The sets—which are stunning—are completely false and unrealistic, and elements of the absurd are constantly brought to our attention (people often break out into song, for example).
Perhaps Fellini wants to remind us that the worlds of theater and royalty exist only as superficial artifice—and that includes his own work in the movies. But he can’t bring himself to condemn these people. Rather, he treats them with an ironic, amused affection. That attitude rubs off on his film, which is wry and funny.
First published in the Herald, February 1984
Despite the greatness of Night of Cabiria and 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, I’m not a huge Fellini enthusiast. At the time this seemed like a solid return to an articulate form (although I actually remember liking Orchestra Rehearsalquite a bit), which was a welcome achievement, especially after City of Women. Still, the great period was definitely over.