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For Your Consideration: 'E la nave va'

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E la nave va, directed by Federico Fellini
We have an annual cinema screening at school, for which a colleague and I do a panel to introduce the film, in the style of Robert Osborne's The Essentials show on Turner Classic Movies. This year we screened Federico Fellini's E la nave va, released in 1984, which was one of the last features completed by Fellini, who died in 1993. Fellini wrote the screenplay with Tonino Guerra, who wrote L'Avventura and La Notte with Michelangelo Antonioni in 1960 and 1961. Guerra, who died in 2012, also wrote other films with Fellini, including Amarcord.

Following the death of legendary soprano Edmea Tetua in the summer of 1914, her friends and devotees take a luxury ship together to the island of Erimo, where she was born, to scatter her ashes. The cast of characters is led by a hapless journalist, played by English character actor Freddie Jones, who serves as narrator, often looking directly at the viewer and speaking to us. Tetua's vain operatic colleagues are joined by an Austrian grand duke who was a fan, and in mid-voyage the captain picks up a group of Serbian refugees fleeing the conflict with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about to ignite World War I. An Austro-Hungarian warship later demands that the refugees be turned over, with disastrous consequences. Celebrated soprano Ildebranda Cuffari, foremost rival of the dead diva, is played with cold reserve by Barbara Jefford, who was just seen in Philomena from 2013. The sister of the Grand Duke, the blind Principessa Lherimia, is played by Pina Bausch, the ground-breaking modern dancer and choreographer, who died in 2009.

E la nave va is also a meta-history of film, beginning in the silent era and ending in the 1980s on the edge of digital cinema. When the Gloria N. leaves Naples, the film is completely silent. We hear only the whir of the camera, until sounds gradually creep in, noises like the ship's horn. Characters' lines are still displayed on cards, like a silent film, until gradually voices enter the soundtrack, too. References to early film legends, like Charlie Chaplin, are worked naturally into the story. By the end of the film, the camera drifts away from its illusions -- the whole film was shot at the Cinecitta studio outside Rome, with effects that are often charmingly false -- to show another camera on a scaffold, the hydraulic-powered ship set (all designs by the legendary Dante Ferretti), the lighting, the cloth representing the sea, even coming to rest on the lens of another camera. It is a self-aware cinematic moment reminiscent of the end of Blazing Saddles. The details of the set are meticulous, down to the paintings on the walls, based on masterpieces but copied by Fellini's friend, painter Rinaldo Geleng and his son Giuliano. It is the opposite of the world of digital effects filming, with everything handmade and shot on a stage.

Fellini said he was inspired by a painting by Hieronymus Bosch called The Ship of Fools (shown at right). The "ship" is a tiny craft, on which a nun strums a lute while a Franciscan friar and several other men sing along. They lean in to take bites of a hunk of bread suspended on a string. A man reaches up toward a plucked chicken suspended from the mast; another vomits into the water. There is no way that this crazy craft with its lunatic crew can survive. The panel is the top section of the left wing of a larger altarpiece Bosch made around 1490, cut apart from the lower section, which is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. The right wing of this altarpiece, Death and the Miser, is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. The Ship of Fools, then, appears to be a depiction of the sin of prodigality, which Dante saw as the twin vice of avarice, or gluttony.

For Fellini the Ship of Fools was a metaphor for the creation of art, specifically about making a film. During the filming, Fellini put it this way: "I've decided to renounce the idea that I'm omnipotent when I'm directing. The more I'm convinced that I'm piloting the ship, the more the ship goes wherever it wants to. After the first few weeks, I'm not directing the movie anymore; the movie is directing me. It's nothing new. It happened to Geppetto, too. He was still there, working on his precious puppet, and then Pinocchio starts kicking him." Film is blissfully artificial, although it gives the impression of documentary reality. When the hearse arrives with the ashes of La Tetua, two men start to carry them toward the ship. The cameraman then arrives to film the scene, so they dutifully walk backwards to the hearse and start again, this time for the camera. At one point the ship dining room's maitre-d' asks the journalist to move to another location while he gives his narration to the camera, because he is blocking the path of the waiters in the dining room. As two ladies look at the setting sun, they remark that it looks painted -- which, of course, it is.

Music is at the heart of the film, with many sections of famous pieces, juxtaposed and arranged in different ways by Gianfranco Plenizio. The first music we hear, not long after sound enters the picture, is the Agnus Dei from Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, played in a piano arrangement by Plenizio. At more than one point, the maestro character suddenly begins conducting, and the whole cast becomes an opera chorus, taking up choral scenes from Verdi's La forza del destino and other works. There are waltzes by Johann Strauss for the Grand Duke of Herzog; a Schubert Moment Musical is played on tuned glasses in the kitchen scene; Debussy's Clair de Lune, from the Suite Bergamasque, plays a major part, and there is also his prelude Des pas sur la neige; Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is heard for the sped-up kitchen scene and the slowed-down dining room scene, which has the look and feel of a ballet. Several parts of Rossini's William Tell are included, and in the ash-scattering scene we hear a recording of La Tetua singing O Patria mia from Aida.

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