Rational Laughter at Frivolous Sublime (at the Solemn Aesthetization of Suffering)

Paradisiacal sounds over the hell

Warming up the muscles of the muse

Whatever Federico Fellini is looking at here, screwed-up decoration on the set or a wrong beam of light directed at a wrong spot, his grimace of disgusted disapproval of human condition, which connotes his masterpieces of intellectual comedy, is registered in this photo with all clarity.

Mr. Orlando is an Italian journalist whom Fellini needs for mediating not only between the director and characters (to soften his sarcasm) but also between viewers and characters (to make the audience more compassionate to them).

The worshippers of the cult of opera’s beauty are exercising their aesthetic crafts.

Mr. Orlando tries to get an interview with the Grand Duke that is not easy considering the layers of guards, secret agents, ceremonial rituals and diplomatic sensitivities.

The Grand Duke has answered the question about the dangers of international situation, but a matter of interpretation of his answer becomes highly important…

… as soon as the interviewee represents the country involved in a war.

In the giant belly of the ship, where workers burn coal to provide energy for the voyage of sublime sentiments and where the working sweat is mixed with the hellish heat, the gods of opera suddenly appeared as if from the heaven, curious about the living hell of physical exhaustion and looking for success among the human masses that are ready to worship the apparitions.

Immediately starting to compete for admiration, the gods of belle canto try to outshine one another.

Ildebranda (mezzo-soprano) is trying hard to defeat the sopranos and tenors in the fight for the bottom people’s love.

The Grand Duke’s blind sister who is able to see sounds of music in colors, not only schemes with her lover to disinherit her brother but takes real pleasure from her secret affair, a pleasure that will extend to a smashing betrayal of the person she is in love with (as the final, the most intense, kick of her romance).

A solemn moment of paying tribute to the memory of the deceased soprano – with Psalms, ashes and the wind, when even war became silent until the end of the sublime ceremony.

The warship is waiting until the ashes of the godly singer will complete sharing itself with the air, the sea, land and sky and the human hearts trembling with love for the art.

The Austro-Hungarian monster-ship demands the surrender of the Serbian refugees taken on board of the ship of love for opera because of general custom of helping refugees at the sea. But for a military ship refugees are nothing but terrorists.

After ceremonial negotiations between the two ships – that of love for sublime and that of war against human flesh, the Grand Duke is ready (quite in the spirit of opera art), to personally deliver the refugee/terrorists to the warship.

Misunderstanding inseparable from brawl (with cannons, shells and missiles), when the logic of negotiation transforms into logic of power assertion, makes Orlando and other passengers look for salvation.

According to our journalist on the spot, most pilgrims of the beauty survived the ordeal of war.

EPSON scanner image
Federico Fellini polishes his concept of a future film and, perhaps, elaborates some details.


Christianity didn’t succeed in making the pagan nature of Western nations less pagan – less prone to idolatry, cruelty and war-making. Christian countries make billions and billions on production of weapons and dominate global arm sales. Christ’s message of social love and justice was superficially assimilated by societies where the disparity between rulers and ruled (rich and poor) is proudly growing the more the church solidified its status over vast populations – the poor don’t have any other choice as to agree to take Christian revolutionary ideas not as a reality but as a hope for change (as a beautiful dream about an alternative life). This situation of taming Christ by the Christian religion in the name of secular power has been going on already for twenty centuries, but at the same time it will not be just to say that the rich took nothing from Christianity. It is at this point that Fellini’s film opens for us its treasures. We see not just aristocracy separated from simple folks like cloud from the lake or sunrise from the darkness of the night. We see the aristocratic culture in its feelings and actions, and we understand what Fellini is telling us – the social elite doesn’t want to take Christ existentially, it takes Him “culturally”, as an exotic sensitivity in the form of aesthetics of suffering.

Of course, today’s elite doesn’t have the sensitivity for aesthetics and taste for suffering (the nakedly financial elite doesn’t need any makeup of aristocratism – the enhanced dentures of athletic profit-making is enough for its members). But Fellini’s film is very worthy as a segment of historical analysis of the evolution of the sensibility of the social elite for the last hundred years. The events of the film takes place in July of 1914, after Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie of Austria were killed by a Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28th that soon brought the world to WWI. But the events registered in the film are only peripherally connected with all that – the aristocratic elite indulging in aesthetic pursuits has its own, parallel history only indirectly connected to the preparations, provocations, the making, and the winning and losing the wars. Fellini depicts the cruise in Mediterranean Sea by the international group of fans of opera art who are grieving the untimely death of a famed opera singer, Edmea Tetua, the carrier of goddess-like voice. We follow this funeral voyage set to disperse her ashes near the island Erimo, her birthplace, observing and identifying with great art and the elevating beauty of the opera on the one hand, and, also following Fellini, laughing at the extreme megalomania and absurdity of the characters he himself and we sympathize with. Simultaneously, we identify with Fellini’s laughter – the film makes us split from ourselves, it puts us in a cognitive dissonance which Fellini amends with the charm of his artistry as a director.

The paradox Fellini emphasizes is that megalomania, super-human status that the pompous heroes of the film possess, expose and impose on the world and the viewers of the film, is awkward and perverted, but simultaneously, not without a certain grace. The Christian message – grace in its ascetic essence, still keeps grace (keeps itself intact) when it becomes the attribute of the aesthetic of suffering. When the Christian grace is transformed from ethics into aesthetics, from morality of living into beauty of feelings, it stops to address the world and belong to people and start to belong to beauty worshippers. The victory of music (over the truth of war and mass destruction) means victory of suffering but purified, made sublime, abstract, in comparison with the torments of common people, involved in mass murders and mass sacrifices at the commands of the human decision-makers feeling themselves much more than humans. When ethics transforms into aesthetics it is not losing its ethical appeal but just splits from life of society with its screaming inequalities.

Fellini exposes to us numerous characters who are perverts in their very human attempts to be super-human, who are exposed in their vanity and are debunked (by Fellini) in their artificiality. The deadly rivalry among the sopranos, hate to death between the tenors, the touching sincerity of the journalist introducing personages to the viewers with a shyness of genuine feelings and creating the psychological bridge between the present and the past, the senility of the Russian basso hypnotizing the chicken with the magic of the depth of his voice, the person who made the opera star the muse of his death, Sir Reginald (pre-globalist global businessman who transcended the British monarchy in the power of his drive to dominate the world and affairs of his wife Lady Violet), the Grand Duke’s blind sister who simultaneously schemes against her brother and uses her lover only to spectacularly betray him with maximum of perverted erotic pleasure, Grand Duke himself, proudly and stupidly sacrificing himself to his title, and the secret service that marks its presence by intervening in the life of the ship – all this and much more is offered with delightful intelligence to the public that by watching the characters’ behavior is simultaneously identify with it and refuse it as too pathetically narcissistic.

Fellini’s film is simultaneously a catharsis and withdrawal from identification, recognizing ourselves in the characters and stepping back because of embarrassing understanding of our similarity with them. Fellini’s film makes us more conscious about our real motivations in life, more prone to introspectively see ourselves as we really are, not as we want to be seen.

Opera is debunked as a strategy of dissolving our megalomaniacal needs into an aesthetically accepted behavior. Fellini makes us conscious about our self-aggrandizing efforts to survive beyond and above our life, in the traditional spirituality and aesthetic cult.

Posted on Mar 10 2015 –   “And the Ship Sails On” (1983) By Federico Fellini by Acting-Out Politics