A great opera singer has died, and it was her wish for her ashes to be scattered at sea, so this day a collection of her fellow stars and performers, along with many dignitaries, board a ship, singing out an excerpt from an opera as they do. Among them are the Archduke and his entourage, a fine tenor or two, a famed comedian and a certain journalist, Orlando (Freddie Jones) who will be our guide to this adventure. He does his best to keep us up to speed on who everyone is and what their relationships are to each other, but there are dark rumblings of greater events ahead, for the year is 1914...
Celebrated filmmaker Federico Fellini was nearly at the end of his glittering career when he made And the Ship Sails On, or E la nave va if you were Italian, which is perhaps the reason for its elegiac and valedictory mood. Strikingly filmed on vast and elaborate sets, the film would list into surrealism, and the whole work with its canvas seas and robot seagulls took on a life of its own that was at once typical of its creator and not quite like anything else. Apparently we were supposed to regard the ship and its passengers and crew as a metaphor for this big old world we're travelling through, but this was a little too obvious in practice.
Better not to saddle oneself with the analogies that the film might conjure up and enjoy its more incidental pleasures. For a story that pays tribute to artists, specifically here musicians and singers, it's fitting that its best stretches are concerned with music. Never mind that seagull that breaks into the restaurant (they should be glad it only left a feather behind), concentrate on fine sequences such as the entertainers playing a tune on glasses of water and bottles - a delight - or the opera performers venturing down to the boiler room to visit the workers there and engaging in a singing competition over the roar of the engines.
Characters here are less satisfying, either full of longing that may well go unrequited or a bluff self-centredness. Even Jones is robbed of much of his inimitable screen personality by having him hopelessly dubbed, though fortunately his trademark quirks are not entirely lost. No one actor makes a stronger impression over another, and you're in no doubt that it is Fellini in charge and his vision we are seeing, so there is a lack of a single defining lead to guide us through the tales, with Orlando the best we've got even if he is sidelined or simply offscreen for too much of the time. No matter if you have those handsome visuals to enjoy.
But then international politics rears its head when some Serbian refugees make their presence felt. The passsengers were hoping for a respectful service for the deceased, but they now find the larger world encroaching on their insular one when a Austro-Hungarian warship looms on the horizon, a remarkable item of ominous model work, bristling with guns and with its own glowering cloud hanging over it, all in shades of menacing grey. The warship wants those Serbians and is willing to fire upon the vessel carrying them. This representation of the approaching war causing untold dispruption to previously peaceful and civilised lives is more dreamlike than anything else, but such a strikingly fashioned experience can't fail to impress, even at a purely technical level. If the ending is predictable and portentous, then that's only fitting.