#13 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
It seems odd for Fellini to have picked the Belle Epoque to be the subject of his satirical eye. Ending more than seventy years before And the Ship Sails On‘s production and ending six years before Fellini’s birth, La Belle Epoque was a Franco-centric period marked by peace and cultural and technological advancements. It all came crashing down with the violence and bloodshed of World War I. And it’s on this cruise from Italy to a small island, designed to honor the recently departed and greatest of opera singers Edmea Tetua, where the Belle Epoque meets the future.
The movie opens as a silent film with sepia toned images and a complete lack of soundtrack and bleeds slowly into color and sound. As the group of opera singers, managers, and critics climb aboard the Gloria N they all break into a song. The cast of characters is large, and we’re not really supposed to identify with them individually though there are certain standouts. First and foremost is Orlando, a journalist who functions as a narrator, introducing characters and providing critique as we move through the film. The large opera singer Aureliano, a Russian basso who can hypnotize a hen to sleep with his voice, the jealous Ildebranda who wants the secret to Edmea’s voice, and the Grand Duke, a young and fat Prussian royal, who make the most impact.
For several days these characters wander the ship, touring it with the captain, and speak of frivolous things while the recent outbreak of hostilities incited by the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand gets barely a mention. There’s a séance which a wealthy fan of the diva tries to ruin by appearing in her clothes as a ghost only to be found out and insulted. There’s the trip to the boiler room where, high on a gangway removed from the grit of the work, the opera singers enter into an unofficial singing contest in order to entertain the grimy men below who make the boat go. There’s also a rhinoceros being transported below deck that begins to stink up the entire ship and must be raised out and washed. All of this has implications of the people and their status in contemporary culture, with them far removed from the people that they speak of in abstract.
Much like the wrecking ball crashing into the practice space in Orchestra Rehearsal, everything changes when the boat picks up a large group of Serbian refugees in the middle of the night. The captain saw it as his duty, but the wealthy passengers firstly see it as an affront. They should not have to share their well paid space with nationless freeloaders, but the two groups end up connection through music. The Serbians play and dance, and the opera mavens playfully critique, provide history, and join in before the real world intervenes in the form of an Austro-Hungarian warship demanding the Serbs.
Like most late Fellini films, the overall point doesn’t really materialize until the ending, but when it does it is rather stark. I think the movie is about the inefficacy and powerlessness of artists against real world forces. They are able to delay the delivery of the Serbs with the help of the Grand Duke, Edmea’s reputation, and their overall mission, which the Austro-Hungarians honor, but once the ashes have been spread the Austro-Hungarians have not forgotten the Serbians. This is where Orlando, the journalist and critic, becomes the most important. He dreams of an alternate scenario where they stood strong and refused to hand over the refugees, but it’s not the case. Instead, we watch as the Serbians line up into the boat to be transported to the warship, and all the opera singers can do is sing in defiance. The singing changes nothing, of course. The Serbians still go, but it all goes even worse when a Serbian terrorist amongst the group throws a primitive bomb into the warship, accidentally causing a cannon to fire, which hits the Italian vessel and sinks her (though, as Orlando explains, there are other interpretations of the events that include the Austro-Hungarians firing on purpose).
So, why did Fellini chose La Belle Epoque to satirize? Well, I think he saw it as a vessel for his criticism of contemporary artists and their relation to the world around them. Fellini was known for personal works that entertained. He didn’t try to push the world one direction or another through his work because he realized no movie of his could directly influence world events, and yet it’s a common goal that artists can share. The opera singing above the coal workers showed the artists removed from the real world, and their singing on deck as the Serbians get taken away showed them powerless when faced with tangible might. Their critique and intended instruction of Serbian dance to Serbians dancing showed them unknowledgeable of their limits when it comes to their textbook based intelligence.
The movie’s production design, I think, helps to highlight this barrier. The boat was recreated on a soundstage at Cinecitta, like how Fellini had worked on every film since La Dolce Vita, but there’s no effort to sell the space, especially above deck, as realistic. It’s heavily theatrical with waves made of plastic, much like the plastic garbage bag waves in Fellini’s Casanova, that are meant to highlight to artificiality of the characters’ existence. We even get an extended shot towards the end of the movie as Fellini breaks the fourth wall and shows the movie’s production that includes a look at the large gimbal that held up the set and allowed for it to tilt.
Overall, And the Ship Sails On is a good little movie made up of vignettes that drive the action forward. I do wish for a paring down of characters to provide a greater focus, but as it stands, the movie demonstrates Fellini’s thematic intelligence and command of the physical elements of production.