In And the Ship Sails On, I needed a large exterior to paint, so I used the wall of the Pantanella pasta factory. It was where my father, Urbano Fellini, had worked when he passed through Rome on his way back from forced labor in Belgium after World War I. It was while at the pasta factory in 1918 that he met my mother, Ida Barbiani, and carried her off, not on a white charger, but in a third-class coach on the train, with her full consent, away from her home, family, and social class in Rome.
By the time I made Intervista, from the perspective of the years that had passed, I had a better understanding of my parents than the view I had in my own youth. I had come to feel close to my father, and I fervently wished I could tell him so. I understood my mother better, too, and I no longer resented our differences. I recognized that life had not given either of them what they wanted, but I tried to give them in retrospect the understanding I gave to the characters in my films.
The deck of the ship in And the Ship Sails On was constructed on Stage 5 at Cinecittà. It was supported on hydraulic jacks and rocked realistically. Everyone but me was seasick. It was not because I am such a good sailor, but because I was so intensely involved in what I was doing that I was not aware of the rocking. 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.
I wasn’t certain about casting Freddie Jones in the role of Orlando. He would be a British type playing an Italian in a Mediterranean setting. Yet there was something about him that appealed to me for the part. After our initial interview, I rode with him to the airport. On the way back to Rome, I was still unsure. Then I saw a bus which had a large sign advertising Orlando ice cream. I took it as a favorable omen and allowed it to make the decision for me. Besides, I didn’t really have anyone else in mind.
In the opening, I show the contrast between the rushed confusion of the luxury liner’s first-class galley and the slow, stately pace of the dining room. The rich eat very slowly. They never have to worry about shortages. They are more concerned about how they look while chewing.
I was concerned about having lovely food for the people to eat. It had to be photogenic so it would look enticing on the screen. I wanted food that was fresh and deliciously prepared for inspiring the actors. It was important that it smelled good, and we looked forward to eating it afterwards. Maybe everyone did better and there were fewer takes so we could finish before the food got cold.
There is nothing too small for me to do on the set. I move a table, I arrange someone’s curl, I pick up a piece of paper from the floor. It is all part of making the film. At home, I cannot make a cup of coffee because I am too impatient to wait for water to boil.
And the Ship Sails On has a great deal to do with opera, a subject I would have avoided in my earlier pictures. It was only in later life that I came to appreciate our Italian operatic tradition. I suppose the reason I said and wrote so much about not liking opera is because every Italian is supposed to love opera, especially every Italian man. My brother, Riccardo, went around the house singing. Love of opera isn’t restricted to Italy, of course, but it’s more widespread here than in America.
All my life I’ve had a natural resistance to whatever everyone likes, or wants, or is “supposed” to do. I never was interested in soccer, either to play or to watch, and for a man to admit that in Italy is almost like admitting that you aren’t a man at all. I do not like to belong to political parties or to clubs. Partly this is probably in my black-sheep nature, but I think another very real reason is I remember the Black Shirts.
I was a child in a time when we wore the outfits of our school, or we wore the black shirts of fascism, and we were supposed to question nothing. That has made me question everything. I was always suspicious, not wanting to be one of the sheep going to slaughter. So sometimes I may have missed out on a pleasure the sheep enjoyed which I could have had without becoming a lamb chop.
Now I have developed a late interest in opera, but it’s difficult to admit you have interest in a subject in which you have vehemently denied having any interest for so long.
I have not seen the film since it was finished, but I wonder how it would seem now in light of what has been happening in Yugoslavia. Would it seem too light, too dated? Or would it speak to audiences more clearly?
The rhinoceros is a distant cousin of the sick zebra I helped to wash when I was a boy and the circus came to Rimini. My theory about why the zebra was sick is that he didn’t have any sex in his life. How could he feel well? There was, after all, only one zebra in that circus. The rhinoceros is lovesick.
Only one rhinoceros is the same as only one zebra.
Excerpted from I, Fellini (1995) by Charlotte Chandler. Reprinted by permission of the author.