Set in the days leading up to WWI, opens as a sepia-toned silent film with projector noise. Narrator/society reporter Mr. Orlando leads us around an ornate cruise ship packed with opera singers on a ceremonial trip in memory of a departed fellow artist. It’s all quite perfect-looking (and perfectly fake), except of course for the inexcusably awful lipsync. There’s some scheming, some rivalry and nervous looks but most everyone appears to be in the grand spirit of things, even spontaneously singing for the stokers during a tour. But there’s less goodwill to go around when a boatload of Serbian refugees is picked up by the captain and they stare hungrily through the windows as the elite try to enjoy their opulent meals. Eventually the Serbians and opera singers start to blend, and we get some Titanic-like inter-class scenes.
I’m not too good with WWI-era Euro-nationalities but I thought the ship (and some of its royal passengers) was Austro-Hungarian, so when an Austro-Hungarian warship shows up demanding the surrender of the Serbians (but agreeing to wait until after the burial ceremony) I get a bit confused. The art-ship finally sends the Serbians over to the war-ship, but one lobs a bomb and the war-ship ends up sinking the art-ship. Rather than take this seriously (are there enough lifeboats? are the stokers all killed?), Fellini puts the narrator in a lifeboat with a rhinoceros and shows off his sets and camera setup.
Fellini: “The sea was created from polyethylene. The obviously artificial painted sunset looked beautiful. The appearance of artificiality is deliberate. At the end, I reveal the set and me behind a camera, the entire magic show.”
The pudgy Grand Duke’s sister, the blind princess, is played by Pina Bausch, the only time she played a character (not herself) in a film. Narrator is Freddie Jones (Dune, Krull). Barbara Jefford (Ulysses, The Ninth Gate) is an elegant, sad singer, the only one who appears to be in mourning. Not the latest Fellini movie I’ve seen – that would be Ginger & Fred, which seems similar to this one in my memory (assembled group of artists in single location).