Saturday, January 31, 2009

And the Ship Sails On (E la nave va) A Film by Federico Fellini (1984)

Many have said Federico Fellini approached lunacy in the latter half of his career, but these have often been self-defensive critical stabs that result from Fellini's journey into more unconscionably personal works. The elements that peppered the films he received acclaim for (8 1/2, La Strada, La Dolce Vita) do not differ greatly from those present in his more festive late films; rather, they are exemplified - frequently overblown, but always striking. In a way, 1984's And the Ship Sails On feels like a nutty cross between 8 1/2's high culture and Amarcord's fantastic incoherence.

The film is set in 1914 on the brink of World War I - which becomes evident in its finale - on a cruise ship titled Gloria N. On board there is an eclectic horde of Italy's intelligentsia: wealthy aristocrats, musicians known for their abnormally high or low registers rather than their genuine musical merit, painters, political thinkers, hopeless romantics, and even a stenchy rhinoceros. They are headed to the island of Edmea Tetua's birth (a sublime opera singer whose death has left the artistic world in mourning), where they will scatter her ashes according to her wishes. A frizzy-haired journalist, who resembles both palpably and thematically the tour guide in Sokurov's Russian Ark, introduces himself to the camera as an outsider on a mission to document the monumental funeral. When he breaks the third wall in a number of silly scenes, Fellini is suggesting him as the viewer, equally new to the unusual circumstances.

The initial half of the film is rife with lightweight, quietly affecting moments that play like a satire on snobby, highbrow culture. The camera stops by several of the ship's peculiarly lavish interiors to capture scenes that range from delightfully surreal to softly touching. Some highlights include a symphony of silverware in the kitchen, an tacit battle of singing voices in the depths of the ship between a multitude of aristocrats, a basso stoning a chicken to sleep with his bellow, and a stroll on the deck at dusk to a gentle piano accompaniment. This somewhat inchoate rhythm is hindered by the arrival of a group of Serbian refugees, rescued from a shipwreck by Gloria N's captain. Many of the passengers are wrongfully discomforted by the refugees, thinking of them as possible threats, so they are ordered to stay behind an expanse of rope. What results is the eventual acceptance of the Serbs, translated vivaciously into a mutual celebration on the ship deck beside a glistening cellophane sea in one of Fellini's trademark motifs (the setting aside of woes for the genuine excitement of hoopla).

The film also invites political significance into its repertoire with the coming of the Serbs. Eventually an Austro-Hungarian battleship is spotted making threatening requests to the Gloria N to hand over their refugees. Deliberately stagy spectacle begins to overwhelm the carefree charm of the first half of the film. It's an opportunity for Fellini to showcase his creative bravura but it feels slightly uncharacteristic in relation to the rest of the film. There is an even more overt acknowledgment of the artifice towards the end when the camera reveals the vast film set and its busy crew; it feels gratuitous when given the number of times this ground is covered less directly. There are a multitude of moments in And the Ship Sails On however, especially when Fellini's sympathies lie with his jaded central bunch, that feel like a very fond farewell to Edmea Tetua, a symbol of shimmering humanity and perhaps even of fine art itself; interestingly, the film may have been Fellini's final work of art.

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