Directed by: Federico Fellini
Starring: Freddie Jones, Barbara Jefford, Victor Poletti, Peter Cellier
One of Federico Fellini’s last works, And the Ship Sails On (1983), was made when the filmmaker was 73, and yet it’s one of his most playful works. Yes, it’s also a reflective, nostalgic film about the passing of an era, which perhaps reflects the passing of Fellini’s own era. Whether or not it does, Fellini understands and has tapped into the fact that there’s an inherent emotional kick when dealing with such an era—even if it’s dressed up in the absurd, even grotesque, way it is here. For a movie that revels in its very artificiality, And the Ship Sails On possesses an astonishing emotional resonance in its last scenes—at which time you realize that its playfulness had masked a deep sadness all along.
It’s not terribly surprising that this Fellini film has always been considered one of his lesser works. By 1983—indeed most post-Amarcord (1973) films—it had become fashionable to denigrate Fellini’s work. Even his established classics weren’t free from attack, but his new works were the major targets. So when he made a two-plus-hour movie that had no actual plot—only a central situation—and which indulged in such things as having the camera pull back at the end to reveal that everything had indeed been a film all along, a cool reception was assured. That ending in particular—the sort of thing that had been really hip when Michael Sarne did it in Joanna (1968) and really artistic when Alejandro Jodorowsky did it in The Holy Mountain (1973)—was very old hat. The fact is that it’s obvious that Fellini didn’t care. He made the film his way—and possibly just for himself (which lends credence to the idea that Fellini is indeed dealing with the end of his own era).
Looked at today—now that we’ve passed the fad for Fellini bashing—this is a truly remarkable work. No, there isn’t much of a plot. It’s not about much more than a group of hoity-toity people in 1914 on a ship who have no other purpose than to carry the ashes of a famous opera singer to the island of her birth to scatter them as per her wishes. The group is comprised of musicians, actors, conductors, artsy types, some minor (but dangerous) royalty, one journalist/documentary filmmaker (Freddie Jones)—who serves to tell us what is going on—and one lethargic (possibly lovesick) rhinoceros. A good deal happens—much of which is not especially important, but a lot of which is blessed with the kind of special magic that only a filmmaker of Fellini’s greatness could pull off. See it and marvel at the beauty—and strange sadness—of a completely fabricated and deliberately phony reality.
And the Ship Sails On, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.