The White Sheik

Year: 1952. Running time: 86 minutes. Black & white. Monaural. In Italian with optional English subtitles. 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Directed by Federico Fellini. Starring Giulietta Massina, Alberto Sordi, and Leopoldo Trieste. From The Criterion Collection

Review by Joe Pettit, Jr.

Federico Fellini's first film, The White Sheik (1952), is overshadowed by its more illustrious brethren, monumental films such as , La Strada, La Dolce Vita, Juliet of the Spirits, and Satyricon. That's a pity. The White Sheik demonstrates that certain themes, styles and shot locations have been in Fellini's bag of tricks from the very beginning — so much so that the film could serve as a "Fellini for Dummies." Unlike his later films, this film pays homage to the old Hollywood comedies, in particular Laurel & Hardy. As an unexpected bonus, the movie is just plain heartwarming and sweet. Although the director pokes fun at the two main characters, Fellini clearly empathizes with Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Ivan Cavalli (Leopold Trieste) as they desperately wend their way through one mishap after another to get back to each other's side.

The couple travels to Rome on their honeymoon. Ivan has their trip planned out to the last minute with family reunions, sightseeing, and even an audience with the Pope. Unbeknownst to her husband, Wanda brought her own agenda. She is an avid reader of "The White Sheik," a popular romantic fumetti (adult comic strips using photographs instead of drawings). Wanda's fan letters to Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who portrays the Sheik, resulted in a standing invitation to visit the studio anytime she is in Rome.

While Ivan naps during a rare open slot on their tight schedule, Wanda steals away from the hotel room under the pretense of taking a bath. She plans for the visit to be short, but gets swept away by her desire to meet the Sheik, ending up at a remote photo shoot outside of Rome. Stranded, Wanda desperately tries to negotiate a ride back. She encounters Rivoli, lounging on an elevated swing, decked out in full regalia. He invites her to act in the fumetti, partly as a reward for her devotion and partly as an elaborate seduction scheme.

Meanwhile, Ivan wakes up to discover his wife missing and his hotel room flooded from the bath she left running. Throughout the rest of the day, Ivan creates barely credible cover stories in order to hide his marital trauma from his family. Before the night is out, both Ivan and Wanda's romantic delusions are shattered. By the time they reunite the next morning, the couple is truly united by their adventures, for better or for worse. On the way to their audience with the Pope, Wanda whispers to Ivan "you're my White Sheik," acknowledging that all the romance she needs is right by her side.

Even in his first directorial effort, Federico Fellini had a marvelous eye for casting, as demonstrated by his choices for the three principle roles. With his elastic features, expressive eyebrows, and wide eyes, Leopoldo Trieste proved to be a great comic find. Fellini had to persuade him to try acting (he was a writer and an intellectual), and then convince him he was a comic, not a dramatic, actor. Brunella Bovo, with her innocent eyes, timid voice, and sweet face, was perfectly cast as a starstruck small town girl. Fellini encountered the most studio resistance from his casting of Alberto Sordi as the White Sheik. The studio considered Sordi a has-been, overweight actor, doomed to a lifetime of dubbing foreign films, and certainly incapable of pulling off a romantic role. Both Fellini and Sordi proved them wrong. With his wide face and hangdog eyes, Sordi brought a sadness and vulnerability to the role, adeptly switching between the romantic and comic tones demanded by the film.

More importantly, The White Sheik reveals that Fellini had a strong visual style from the very beginning of his career. His scene compositions are splendid, ranging from expressive close-ups of Trieste and Bovo's faces to beach settings captured so perfectly and beautifully, they could be framed. The sense of the absurd and the carnavalesque atmosphere found so prevalently in the later work is also present, albeit in a more controlled form. The images where actors dress in Arabian garb and walk the streets of 1950s Rome, and a late night scene involving prostitutes and a fire breathing street performer, are surreal and magical, evoking the everyday wonder and strangeness of life in a large city.

The Criterion DVD of The White Sheik contains an appreciative essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Also incorporated is an excerpt from I, Fellini (a collection of interviews with Fellini, by author Charlotte Chandler), detailing his experiences directing his first feature film. Included as a bonus feature are interviews with Bovo, Trieste, and assistant director Moraldo Rossi, who also wrote a biography on Fellini. Trieste's recollections are particularly illustrative of how persuasive Fellini could be when he wanted something that he felt was right for the picture, such as Trieste becoming a comic actor. The actor also provides insight into Fellini's working methods, revealing that the director never planned shots ahead of time, preferring to utilize what nature and the location revealed to him on the day of the shoot. For those who have a long-standing interest in Fellini's work, the disc will prove a welcome addition to their collections. For those new to Fellini, the disc offers a splendid introduction to the maestro's work.

The White Sheik is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer. Special features: new video interviews with actors Brunella Bovo and Lepoldo Trieste, and Fellini friend Moraldo Rossi; essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum; and new and improved English subtitle translation. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.