Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Federico Fellini's first solo feature is an utterly winning fable of romance, marriage, innocence
and the difference between fantasy and reality. Charming and effortless, it takes a simple
situation and spins it into a silent-movie tale that makes us love its characters even as they
make fools of themselves. The honeymooning couple from the countryside are a clownish pair
begging to be lampooned, something Fellini and his writers never do; even though The White
Sheik is superficially lighter than Fellini's later work, on the underside, it's his show through
Ivan and Wanda Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo) are wide-eyed
newlyweds from the country honeymooning in Rome, and the fussy Ivan seems to think that the
whole trip and his new bride exist to impress his Roman relatives. But Wanda has other ideas.
She sneaks away to visit her romantic idol, Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi) at his address a
few blocks away. Rivoli is the star of a photo-comic fotoromanzo called The White Sheik.
Before she knows it, Wanda has been whisked away to the beach where the comic is photographed
among costumed Arabs, boats, and camels. Meanwhile, poor Ivan is going out of his mind trying to
make excuses to his suspicious relatives.
Funny, charming, and an example of a tale almost perfectly told, The White Sheik shows us
Federico Fellini creating a 'significant' film out of the raw materials of a situation comedy. His
pair of hicks from the Italian sticks are immensely likeable. The wide-eyed bride with the romantic
imagination is played by Brunella Bovo, from De Sica's fantasy masterpiece Miracle in Milan.
Astonished to find her dreams coming to life around her, she's swept off her feet by the
circus-like troupe of costumed players, and finds herself living out her own fantasies, appropriately
costumed as a kidnapped princess.
The stuffy bureaucrat husband played by the clownish Leopoldo Trieste is himself too much of an
innocent to become a villain; as soon as he
loses his runaway bride, his adventures turn into a farce inflected with silent-movie touches.
Dodging parades on the street like Charlie Chaplin, he becomes a wreck while making endless excuses
to the big-city relatives he wants so much to impress. Dogged by a crowd of nosy Aunts,
suspicious hotel staff and policemen, he spends the day in a comic nightmare.
Wanda meets the man of her dreams swinging from the trees like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, and is
unable to make a distinction between her secret fantasies and her real self. She's oblivious to
the phony caravan of Arabs around her, bickering and complaining, and doesn't know how to make
herself fit into her own fantasy world - she smiles broadly when she's supposed to be a kidnapped
damsel. Overweight and painted like a toy soldier, Alberto Sordi's foolish Sheik tries to
seduce Wanda in a boat, but she realizes something is wrong - her romantic notions are the stuff
of dreams, not sex. Attacked by the actor's wife and yelled at as an idiot, Wanda runs away to
become lost at the seashore.
Ivan has his moment of reckoning as well. Humiliated and terrified by the loss of his bride and the
embarassment of having to lie to his relatives, he's asked at a lunch to recite the poem he wrote
for her. This he does without reservation - even though he's interrupted by the waiter, we realize
he does love Wanda, and that there's hope. His adventures also evoke the bizarre Fellini when he
runs into a pair of prostitutes and a circus fire-eater on the empty Roman streets. One of them is
named Cabiria, and played by Giuilietta Masina, a very interesting touch. This Cabiria seems a
lot more intelligent than the one Masina would play a few years later: she patronizes Ivan, who
appears to perhaps leave to go sleep with the second prostitute (this is ambiguous).
The White Sheik is an important link to the core of Fellini's later work, particularly
La Strada and The Nights of Cabiria. Wanda and Ivan are slightly
buffoonish hicks, slow on the uptake but still basically silent-movie versions of 'us'. Gelsomina
and Cabiria are similar characters with various child-like qualities, but who inhabit much more realistic,
harsh worlds. Wanda is called an idiot by the callous showpeople, but Gelsomina really is an idiot,
sold by her mother into bondage to a strongman who motors her across a cruel landscape. Cabiria is a
full-out prostitute without a stitch of pride, but retaining the spirit of a faithful child. Both of
these characters hark back to Wanda and her semi-fantastic adventure. By the time of
Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini has
settled into a characteristic fantastic-surreal landscape for his characters to inhabit. Juliet's
personal dreams are overwhelmed by the psychedelic visions around her - the balance and accessibility
of Wanda's simpler world has been lost.
Interestingly, Fellini's later circusy pyrotechnics are perfectly miniaturized in the beach photo
session in The White Sheik. The 'actors' strike poses as the director calls out to his still
cameramen to shoot, and the cutting turns the movie into a series of comic-photo panels. These not
only create a confusing mixup between reality and fantasy, but they predate the use of such graphic
confusions in 60s pop art and movies. The contrast between the costumed actors, who barely have to
'act' for a few seconds at a time, and their insensitive, jaded selves between takes, lets Fellini
compare the mirage of show business to our private fantasies. Even Wanda figures it out:
living one's dreams can be nice, but it can also be a bottomless pit. This is a great comedy and
a wonderful entertainment.
Criterion's DVD of The White Sheik presents a good-looking print of a film that probably doesn't
exist in perfect form. The picture is adequate to good, and the sound also okay, but both the image
and the audio must have been at least a little clearer when new. Nino Rota's first bouncy, circusy
score for Fellini is a bit subdued, and a few cut points are rough on the print. I need to stress
that it's only Criterion's track record for drop-dead sparkling images that makes this title seem
a little lacking - it's not bad, just not exemplary.
There are some illuminating text essays, but the zinger here is a 25 minute interview 'remembrance'
with the film's two stars, over 50 years after the film was made. Both Brunella Bovo and Leopoldo
Trieste are great storytellers, and it's like magic to recognize their younger selves in their
elderly but happy faces. Through them we get a wonderful first-person account of the circumstances
of the film and a personal portrait of Fellini. It's a precious document (also contributed to by an interview
with the film's assistant director) and seems even moreso with the final card that notes Mr.
Trieste's passing last year, not long after the interview. The 'extras' on Criterion discs aren't
whatever fluff can be swept together on a title; they are prime-sources that constitute invaluable
research material. I only wish DVD had happened 20 years earlier, when the creators of a lot more of film
history were still alive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The White Sheik rates:
Supplements: New video interviews with actors Brunella Bovo and Leopoldo Trieste, and
Fellini friend Moraldo Rossi
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 28, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson