In the summer of 1914 on the eve of World War I, the oceanliner Gloria N. sets sail from the Bay of Naples. Its passengers are famous opera singers, impresarios, aristocrats, entertainers, and politicians. They have undertaken the voyage to fulfill the wishes of a recently departed opera star, Edmea Tutua (Janet Suzman), who asked that her ashes be scattered in the sea near the island of her birth.
Orlando (Freddie Jones), a hard-drinking journalist, provides introductions to the most noteworthy passengers: the now reigning prima donna (Barbara Jefford), a well known opera manager (Peter Cellier) with a foot fetish, his promiscuous wife (Norma West), the lovesick count Bassano (Pasquale Zito) who pays homage to Edmea by watching her silent movies, the blimpish Grand Duke of Harzock (Fiorenzo Serra), and his politically ambitious blind sister (Pina Bausch).
And the Ship Sails On is Fellini's most inviting film since Armacord (1974). The eccentric characters and the unstructured series of events are familiar trademarks of this Italian director. Many of the images are as surprising and unexpected as the arrival of a seagull in the ship's dining salon, which causes quite a commotion.
In one charming scene, the opera singers visit the engine room and compete to see who can hit a high note over the uproar of the engines. In another, a basso profundo hypnotizes a chicken. In a third, several old men perform Shubert on the kitchen glassware.
The world and its troubles seem light years away from these privileged members of Europe's high society. In the middle of the night, however, the ship's captain allows a group of Serbian refugees abord. The fugitives have fled their country after the assassination at Sarajevo. When they try to move into the first class areas, they are sent back to the deck. In an attempt to forget their plight, the intruders start a gypsy dance and eventually involve the upper class passengers in the festivities.
An Austro-Hungarian battleship arrives and orders the captain of the Gloria N. to hand over the refugees. Following the funeral ritual for Edmea, the Italians comply. One of the Serbians throws a firebomb at the enemy ship, and the Gloria N. is hit by responding gunfire.
Fellini's highly stylized comedy with music can be interpreted as an imaginative history lesson on the passing of an era, as a playful meditation on the self-absorption of artists in a world where there are more important matters to consider than sustained high notes, or as a fantasy trip in which the director teases us with mixed commentaries on the mysteries of the human predicament.