And The Ship Sails On Review

A luxurious transatlantic liner is sailing the ocean with an illustrious roster of passengers that include musicians, conductors, composers and opera singers from the most important opera houses in Europe – all of them accompanying the final journey of Edmea Tetua, the greatest opera singer of all time, to place her ashes to rest on the island of Erimo.

A journalist, Orlando (Freddie Jones) is following the progress of the journey, recording his impressions, his observations and interviews with the famous people on board, accompanied by a film crew. There are various tensions on board the ship between the celebrities – competitive in a professional capacity as well as in the various love affairs being conducted. Political tensions also arise, as the journey takes place in 1914, just at the outbreak of the World War I, and the ship is also carrying on board the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with his retinue.

For a Fellini film E La Nave Va is a curiously restrained one, but as elegantly poised, designed and photographed (by Giuseppe Rotunno naturally) as any of his films, characteristically stylised with an unconventional narrative progression, but nevertheless following a precise rhythm that is entirely of its own and perfectly appropriate – quite literally here at a funereal pace. The elegance and beauty of the occasion is borne out in the costumes and the opera and music pieces that punctuate the film, none more impressive than the pieces that accompany the boarding of the ship (from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and their forced disembarkation (Verdi’s La Traviata, I think, but I can’t place it exactly). The film picks up pace slightly with arrival on board of the Serbian refugees, or if not so much picks up pace, at least brings out the tensions and the nature of each of the characters on board more forcefully, when they have up to then been trying to keep their impulses behind a façade of decorum.

And The Ship Sails On is also a particularly difficult film to fathom its purpose. You can search in vain for all types of allegorical social meaning in its gathering of diverse sections of community – the musicians being made up of the typical Fellinian cast of artists, mystics, and people of political influence (though curiously no religious representatives here this time), along with more common, down-to-earth people, the public represented by the Serbian refugees who are herded-up and kept in their place. The film however resists such easy sociological categorisation, and if you are looking to examine what it is all about, you need look no further than Fellini himself, since all his films - even those ostensibly about historical figures (Casanova, Roma, Satyricon) are essentially about the director’s own personal conflicts and obsessions. The drawing back of the camera at the end of the film to reveal a camera filming the vast stylised set at Cinecittà studios, pulling back to look self reflectively into the lens of another camera rather clearly points to where the focus of the Fellini’s attention lies.

All those typically Fellini characteristics are there, each one representing a part of himself, typically exaggerated and caricaturised, from the grand Diva, to the womanising tenor, from the Serbian refugee lobbing ineffective little bombs at the vast unshakable powers of the Austro-Hungarian warship, to the rather more obvious figure of Freddie Jones’ Orlando, in his Fellini look-alike hat, the chronicler of the world and the beauty of life around him – all of them are Fellini, reflecting, as the ship sails on, to the sad and inevitable coming to an end of an era for a great filmmaker.

And The Ship Sails On is released in the UK by Infinity Arthouse, a new label who seem at the moment to be specialising in releases of worthy classic Italian films – see the following DVD Times news item. Released alongside another latterday Fellini title, Ginger And Fred - both as 2-disc editions - And The Ship Sails On is in PAL format and is not region coded. Bizarrely, more prominence is given to the extra features, which are scarcely longer than the main feature, but are presented on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc, while the film itself is only on a DVD-5.

As with Ginger And Fred, Infinity have transferred the film here with the bare minimum of attention that a film like this deserves. The print used for the transfer is excellent – clear, sharp and colourful, it captures the exquisite tones of the film superbly for the most part. There are one or two white marks, slightly larger than the normal dustspots, but they are relatively rare and scarcely a problem. There is also some light flaring, discolouring the print, but this only occurs briefly in one scene (the scene where they chase after the seagull) and again, would mostly pass by unnoticed. In the main though, the film looks superb, with rich colours, tones and solid blacks. The transfer is however not great. It’s non-anamorphic for a start, letterboxed at a ratio of 1.66:1, which is not the correct ratio of the film, appearing to be cropped on the left and right. There is really no excuse for putting a non-anamorphic transfer, in the incorrect aspect ratio, of a film by an important director, out on newly released DVD. Moreover, the two hour plus film is contained on one DVD-5 single-layer disc. This doesn’t cause as much of a problem with macro-blocking compression artefacts as reducing the finer detail that should be evident in the lighting, colours, skintones and black tones, but also allowing some minor aliasing artefacts and jagged-edges to appear in diagonal lines. As I say, the transfer is good for what it is – non-anamoprhic, single-layer - but it is bare minimum in terms of quality, and even less when you consider the aspect ratio.

The original soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it is similarly average. A low crackle can be heard throughout on the soundtrack and not just in the reduced quality of the crackly opera recordings used in the film. It’s obviously more noticeable during silent passages, but rarely causes a problem, the dialogue remaining clear and discernable. The “original” Italian soundtrack of the film is used, though the film typically can have a number of language tracks, all of which could be described as original (the French director Catherine Breillat is credited here with the dialogue for the French version of the film, as a French-Italian co-production). None of the other language tracks are presented here. I’m not sure if there is an English language dub of the film – I would suspect that there would be, as there are for most Fellini films, usually supervised by the director himself, particularly when English was often the first language of most of the actors. I’d certainly have liked to hear the wonderful Freddie Jones’ original narration for the film. With almost everyone delivering their lines in English only to be dubbed into Italian in post-production, there are inevitably a lot of lip-syncing issues here.

English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and they are optional. They translate the film well, but do not translate the libretti from the opera pieces, which would be quite significant in the film.

As with Ginger and Fred there is nothing among the extra features that is specific to the feature. Nevertheless the documentaries included on the second disc are of great interest, including two episodes from the Italian television series La Felliana (another two can be found on the Infinity release of Ginger And Fred, the remaining five on the release of Orchestra Rehearsal).

Federico Fellini: A Self Portrait (55:11) is a marvellous documentary covering Fellini's career, made up entirely of archive interviews (which are distinctively Italian) and rare behind-the-scenes footage of the making of many of his films. During his first ever interview in 1952 for The White Sheik, Fellini is asked what he wanted to prove with the film. His answer then could be true for every one of the films he made - "I didn't want to prove anything. I have no messages for mankind. To be frank, I tried to make an entertaining film, but above all one that would be entertaining for me... I consider filmmaking a wonderful toy, a fabulous pastime".

La Felliana: Chapter 4 - “È Nata una Stella” (30:29) is the fourth episode in this 2003 Italian television series on Fellini's life and works, covering his films from The White Sheik to Le Notti di Cabiria and focussing on his marriage to Giulietta Masina. It's not particularly in depth, but hits the essential points in an overview of his early career.

La Felliana: Chapter 7 – “Il Mestiere del Genio” (38:34) is the seventh chapter in the series, covering Fellini's films from his segment in Boccaccio 70 through to Satyricon and an examination of his breaking of filmmaking rules and his distinctive and unique style.

Coming in the latter not-so-great half of the director’s career (which nevertheless certainly has its highlights) And The Ship Sails On is not one of Fellini’s best films. The subject matter remains the inevitable obsession over various aspects of the director’s own personality, but though it lacks the spontaneity and inspiration of his more obviously fictionalised autobiographical films, it manages to achieve a certain sense of melancholy and sadness at the coming to the end of an era (and thereby a filmmaking era) through its stylised period detail, elegant poise and beautiful cinematography. Although it cannot be faulted for the superb collection of extra features, Infinity’s DVD release of the film is very disappointing. The picture quality is generally excellent, showing the true beauty of the film where the Criterion Region 1 failed, but messing it up entirely with a non-anamorphic, single-layer transfer and an incorrect aspect ratio that crops the image. A wasted opportunity.

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