Film and Television Features

The White Sheik (Federico Fellini, 1952)

Overshadowed by virtually every one of Federico Fellini's subsequent grandiose spectacles, his official 1952 debut The White Sheik is a rather modest but celebratory film that serendipitously situates modern audiences in his world of the dreamer, albeit in a slightly more conventional context.  Occurring over a twenty-four-hour period, the film follows the Cavallis, a young newlywed couple, honeymooning in Rome.  Upon arrival, wife Wanda (Brunella Bovo) dismisses the plans of husband Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste) as a result of her preoccupation with exotic 'fumetti' beau, Fernando Rivoli a.k.a. "The White Sheik" (Alberto Sordi), pining for the opportunity to finally meet him as he once suggested in a reply to her letters.  Fully enraptured, Wanda almost instantaneously devises a way to escape her husband's eye to bask in the Sheik's sublimity.  At the time of the film, 'fumetti' were popular soap opera panels in Italian magazines devised to lure predominantly female audiences with their fairytale backdrops and idolizations of heroism.  Even creating fan alias "Passionate Dolly," Wanda loses herself in the impossible hopes and dreams of the 'fumetti' world.  While originally conceived for film by fellow Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni, Fellini and co-screenwriter Tullio Pinelli instill a great comic spirit into the script despite the couple's continual mishaps in progressive satire of urban life and the sham that is the public image of sophistication.

In the accompanying Criterion DVD essay, renowned critic Jonathan Rosenbaum astutely comments on the director's empathy for both main characters in lieu of their delusions and humiliations.  Ivan helplessly tries to divert his family’s attention from his new bride by saying she has taken ill; meanwhile, star-struck Wanda is lured aboard a truck to a 'fumetti' shoot twenty miles outside Rome in the belief that her encounter with the dreamy White Sheik will be utterly transformative.  There is a certain charming naïveté to the provincial couple who have their lives and values overturned after arriving in the great city of Rome.  Like nearly all of Fellini's films, The White Sheik projects autobiographical elements as the director himself became similarly charmed when he first visited the ancient city as a boy; eventually he relocated from the small town of Rimini in his twenties.  This nostalgic innocence and juvenility is transferred into the realm of the film through not only its principal couple but, curiously, the multi-symbolic White Sheik himself.  Traditionally, a sheik is defined by his ethnicity, but the term doubles as a definition for a vain man with particular interest in his appearance.  Rivoli, in fact, epitomizes both in his character and as an actor, respectively.  The color white also reflects the inherent naïveté of the character-actor as well as the enamored Wanda (who is also prominently attired in a white coat and traveler's hat).  Prior to the film's eventual outcome, both Ivan and Wanda stress the importance of remaining pure and innocent despite the façades to which they have fallen prey.  Furthermore, white complements Fellini's sympathies, ultimately relaying sentiments of forgiveness, virginity, and fidelity, while also conveying the human need to latch onto the ideal.  Instead of embracing rationality, Wanda shifts her romanticism from one man to another.

A rich influence of comedy pervades The White Sheik from silent slapstick of a bygone era to the vivacity of extravaganza, which emerges not only through the characters on-screen but through the history of casting the actors and even Fellini himself.  There's innate comedic reference to Leopoldo Trieste, an acclaimed dramatic author, and his portrayal of Ivan as a bumbling bureaucrat.  Fellini further evokes Charlie Chaplin in the scene where Ivan attempts to remain discreet while trapped in the street amidst the marching soldiers.  Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina makes a brief appearance as the droll prostitute Cabiria toward the end of the film as well.  Previously, Masina had worked for the stage in numerous productions, and her talents and character type would be further utilized in forthcoming feature Nights of Cabiria (1957).  Additionally, Alberto Sordi had achieved fame for dubbing the voice of Oliver Hardy for Italian audiences, and his creative slapstick energy is subtly channeled into his 'fumetti' character's coquettish gestures and movements.  Fellini's artistic background in cartoons and caricatures from his youth also adds a unique splendor in framing of the visual spectacle, notably the shoot on the beach as the film's centerpiece.  Wanda's undisciplined acting, an intrusive gawker interrupting set photography, Rivoli's inexplicable decision to sail out to sea for a rendezvous with Wanda, and confrontation between Rivoli's wife Rita and Wanda all factor into the small proto-Felliniesque circus.  And to succinctly characterize Fellini's developing style, prior to Wanda's escapade, the relentlessly rosy wife reveals the notion that her real life begins when she’s alone with her weekly 'fumetti' stories.  Magazine editor Marilena concurs, "Real life is the life of dreams."  This quote acts as a curious harbinger for Fellini's post-1960s work in Jungian surrealism.  Marilena's idealistic philosophy also illuminates Ivan and Wanda's unyielding personal truths throughout their experiences rather than overarching realities.  While The White Sheik never purports to be an extraordinary cinematic revelation either, it is certainly a fun and beguiling glimpse into Fellini's developing genius as a filmmaker.