I will be deleting something from my list of the 100 best films from Italy, Greece, Spain & Portugal to make room for the following entry:
Bettered only in the Federico Fellini canon by Fellini Satyricon (1969), E la nave va is a meditation on the persistence of war and its ravages on humanity set against time’s passage. It is among Fellini’s most moving works. Like his masterpiece, it comments on human folly.
A celebrated opera singer’s ashes are onboard a luxury liner that sets sail days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb. The ship is transporting her friends to an island where her funeral service is to be held. Among the other people onboard are Orlando, a journalist and the humorous guide who speaks to us directly between attempts at interviewing guests, and Austria-Hungary’s Grand Duke.
The film begins scratchily in sepia and silence; this bravura opening depicts the dockside activity, a good deal of it involving playful children, prior to the ship’s departure. The intricacy of this activity, especially since it’s captured primarily in long-shot, evokes allegorical paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. The artifice of the studio-bound details (cellophane ocean, solid, material smoke, etc.) likewise prepare us for an allegory, or at least a parable. The boiler room, with men working below as elaborately dressed guests espy them from on high, may even remind us of Dante’s Inferno—although guests sing for the workers, who applaud. (But do they really enjoy this zoo patron-like intrusion into their workplace?)
Color is itself distancing: browns, white, black, and a touch of red.
When Serbian refugees are brought onboard, spirited peasant dancing augments the plentiful operatic singing. (This film is full of wonderful music.) What is the captain to do when an Austro-Hungarian battleship demands that the refugees be turned over? The Grand Duke intervenes, but only so the funeral service can proceed.
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