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E la nave va

March 13, 2016

E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On)
Federico Fellini (1983)
Wellington City Gallery
March 6, 2016

This was the second in the Pina Bausch-related film screenings at City Gallery. I had never seen any Fellini before and yet he is one of the biggest names in art film, so I thought it would be worth a shot. And it was! Apparently this is one of his late period lesser-regarded films, but I loved it.

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The film starts with a sequence shot in the style of an old-fashioned silent film, including speed up, physical comedy, and various other tropes. A ship is being loaded up and fancy people getting aboard, and as it is close to ready to leave the sound gradually fades in and everyone starts singing opera in a rather preposterous way, then colour fades in and we are in a ‘normal’ sort of movie.

The film is set on the eve of World War I, and the plot is based on the mission of the ship to transport the ashes of “the world’s greatest soprano” to an island where they are to be scattered. The cast includes various other opera singers, a boy duke and attendants (including Pina Bausch as the blind princess) and assorted other aristocracy, plus a reporter who talks to us through the camera to explain who people are and what some of the back story is.

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You could describe this film as a satire of the upper-classes at this point in history, and is often hilarious or just over-the-top corny with ridiculous jokes and mad scenes such as a lovesick rhino being winched up and cleaned. There is a lot of fun with the singers, who include too-serious, competitive, and neurotic types, the red-blooded up for anything man, and a mysterious bass who hypnotises chickens with his voice. But as well as this general silly satire there was also a core of heavy and intense themes and symbols which were of the kind where you couldn’t quite tell if they were meant to be blatantly non-subtle or not.

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It’s really hard to explain the effect of this film. It is one where the madness of the joking and the broad caricature characters begin to become a little grating and make you wonder whether this is really going to amount to anything. But then all of a sudden a boatload of Serbian refugees is rescued and reveal a strange poignancy and seriousness underneath the surface of the satire. In an astonishingly relevant-seeming act the upper classes try to shut out, ignore, and banish the new arrivals, aside from a few who give away some of their food because why the hell wouldn’t you? There are fears of security, of what to do with them, and general disapproval. But then they begin playing folk dances and everyone joins in, and it was hard for me not to think of modern buzzwords like ‘appropriation’ and ‘cultural colonialism’ and all that type of stuff. Ps. the dancing and music are actually pretty fantastic!

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There’s also a perfectly painful scene of the Italian reporter sneaking in and trying to get an interview with the Duke, finally convincing the attendants he can ask a question, and then having to go through so many layers of translation, explanation, and cautious handling that his overly serious question receives only a vague metaphorical response after several back and forths. This was one of the moments where the reality of the incoming war was all of a sudden made real in the crazy world of the film and it was very effective both as comedy and as a sucker punch of ‘whoah that’s right the world is about to end and these guys are in charge??’

The ending is very strange but satisfying and to me struck a perfect balance of true emotional depth and absurdity with the entire situation we humans find ourselves in. Not a perfect film and pretty opaque at times, but it really is one that tries to do something new and different, producing a quite unique emotional mix for me.

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