"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 6, 2012

Classic Film: "And the Ship Sails On" (1983) by Fellini

Opera is the most unnatural and unrealistic of all art forms. It is also an art form from the past, and although operas are still being composed, its heyday has clearly gone by. How can you sing instead of talk, how can you sing your thoughts? How can a dying person - many opera's end in the decease of the hero or heroine - find the strength so sing?  Where - if this were a real world - does the music come from? When I burst out in sudden song in my bath, there is usually no orchestra available to accompany me. And I don't even want to talk about the hideous cardboard gods of Wagner, or the terrible acting...

Still, without being an outright fan, there are many opera's I love, for example those by Puccini and Mozart. In any case, I am enough of an opera lover to be able to enjoy Fellini's And the Ship Sails On (1983, Et la nave va) - I stress this, because I don't think opera haters will like the film. It is after all a film about opera, with opera, and using opera as a symbol for our society.

And the Ship Sails On is about a group of opera singers, their patrons and aristocratic admirers, and other hangers on such as a documentary journalist with film camera (played by Freddie Jones), who are making a trip in a luxury liner from Italy to Erimo island in order to scatter the ashes of deceased opera diva Edmea at her place of birth. The passengers and the vessel are also a symbol of bourgeois society, sailing in the ship of Western civilization. Just like opera, Western bourgeois society is past its prime and falling apart from decadence. It even stinks, but that is a joke by Fellini: it is the stench of a rhinoceros with stomach problems who is also on board.

There are many funny episodes playing out among the weird passengers on the liner. One opera fan has his cabin transformed into a shrine dedicated to the diva's memory. Rival singers try to fathom the secret of the diva's success and line up to compete for the now open position. A Russian basso tries to hypnotize a chicken in the ship's kitchen with only his voice. There is a concert on a glass harmonica. An actor is bent on seducing sailors, a voyeuristic English aristocrat spies on his nymphomaniac wife and an obese Prussian Grand Duke with a blind sister is engaged in various palace intrigues.

The ship's captain saves a group of Serbian refugees, who are like the hungry third world gazing through the windows of bourgeois society (they stand on the lower deck like a prisoner chorus in opera). Their presence on the ship gives rise to fierce discussions, but the captain is adamant. He even does not give up the refugees when an Austro-Hungarian warship appears and demands that the Serbians are handed over - it is 1914, and the First World War has just begun. With the help of the Prussian grand-duke, permission is obtained to first go to Erimo and scatter the ashes of the diva. But when that has been done in proper style, mayhem breaks out when a Serbian hurls a bomb at the Austrian warship. Its cannons burst out in fire and soon sink the defenseless "opera ship"... just like European society with its bourgeois values was sunk in the wars of the 20th century.

The unnatural character of opera is on purpose maintained in the film, which was made inside the studio. There are painted sunsets and seascapes, the Austrian warship is a clear (but rather impressive) mock-up, and at the end we even get to see the studio and its technicians with the deck of the ship mounted on hydraulic pipes to move it up and down.

1914 was also the period that film started - in Italy the great epic Cabiria was made around this time - the journalist, who guides us through the film, has a cameraman with him and often stands straight in front of the camera as if he was making a documentary and delivering his comments from the scene - is he breaking the fourth wall by speaking into Fellini's camera, or is he addressing his own camera inside the story? We also have to forget that sound didn't exist yet for another 13 years, but perhaps that is also part of the unnaturalness of opera that infuses the whole film.