- Directors: Federico Fellini
- Producers: Franco Cristaldi, Renzo Rossellini, Daniel Toscan du Plantier
- Writers: Federico Fellini, Tonino Guerra, Andrea Zanzotto
- Genres: Comedy, Drama, Music, War
- Actors: Freddie Jones, Barbara Jefford, Peter Cellier, Norma West, Pina Bausch
The film opens depicting a scene in July 1914 immediately prior to the cruise ship Gloria N. setting sail from Naples Harbor. The opening sequence is in sepia tones, as if it were a film shot in that era, with no sound other than the whirring of the projector. Gradually the sepia fades into full colour and we can hear the charactersâ€™ dialogue.
Orlando, an Italian journalist, supplies commentary by directly addressing the camera, explaining to the viewer that the cruise is a funeral voyage to disperse the ashes of opera singer Edmea Tetua near the island of Erimo, her birthplace. Considered the greatest singer of all time, Tetua is celebrated for her goddess-like voice.
The bumbling but lovable journalist also provides highly subjective anecdotes and gossip on the wide array of cartoon characters that evoke the golden age of the “funny papers” (Little Nemo, Bringing Up Father, The Katzenjammer Kids) but with a perverse Felliniesque twist. These include more opera singers, voice teachers, orchestra directors, theatre producers, actors, prime ministers, counts, princesses, Grand Dukes, and panic-stricken fans of the deceased diva.
A jealous and bitter soprano named Ildebranda desperately tries to penetrate the secret behind Edmea Tetuaâ€™s unforgettable voice. A bristle-haired Russian basso is shown around the shipâ€™s vast mess hall where, using only his voice, he hypnotizes a chicken. A curly-cued actor travels with his mother in order to seduce sailors. Sir Reginald Dongby, a voyeuristic English aristocrat, relishes spying on Lady Violet, his nymphomaniac wife. The Grand Duke of Harzock, a Prussian, is an obese bubble of a young man whose blind sister (choreographer Pina Bausch) schemes with her lover, the prime minister, to disinherit her brother. The brooding Count of Bassano closets himself in his cabin transformed into a temple dedicated to the divaâ€™s memory.
The main camera then tracks forward to a final shot of Orlando in a lifeboat with the rhinoceros happily munching on hay. â€œDid you know,â€ confides Orlando, â€œthat a rhinoceros gives very good milk?â€ Laughing, he once again mans the oars to disappear on a vast plastic ocean.