The White Sheik (1952)
Director: Federico Fellini
Writer: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano; Story by Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli
Cinematographer: Arturo Gallea
Producer: Luigi Rovere
by Jon Cvack
With a signature magical realism style that would carry on throughout most of Fellini's major works, it’s no surprise that his first film would contain the same elements. It was the director’s solo feature debut, having co-directed Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada two years prior, and for a debut, it’s no wonder that Fellini would rocket to the top of world cinema. It’s a lean 86 minute film that cuts straight to the good stuff and doesn’t relent until the very last minute; full of all the memorable characters you’d expect from Fellini - even Giulietta Masina.
The story involves newlywed couple Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Ivan (Leopold Trieste) who arrive in Rome to celebrate their honeymoon. Ivan’s family then comes arrives in town the next day in order to meet the new bride. Ivan is an anxious and high-strung man, clearly out of Wanda’s league and all them more anxious because of it. He likes to keep a tight control on things, planning out each day to the hour. Obsessed with “The White Sheik” soap opera photo story (think a comic book that uses actual photographs), specifically the title character. When The White Sheik arrives in town for the latest production, Wanda convinces Ivan to run her a bath, which she then ditches to go and try and meet her obsession.
Her journey is successful, as she’s taken away with the wild and magical production and they head to the beach in order to shoot the story’s latest installment. As Fellini does best, we get to watch as these fascinating characters operate behind the scenes, with their temperaments and colorful personalities creating chaos, shining in each and every moment. Eventually Wanda is able to meet The White Sheik (Alberto Sordi), discovering a towering and lecherous man who’s anxious to seduce his newfound superfan. Soon the two end up alone on a boat, where Wanda gets to see her celebrity crush as the scumbag he really is. She quickly leaves the production, begrimed and embarrassed, attempting to kill herself and ending up in a mental institution.
Meanwhile, Ivan does all he can to try and find her, finding a mistakenly suggestive letter to the “White Sheik”, ending up at the police who offer little help. His parents arrive the next day to meet the bride, forcing Ivan to create every excuse in the book in order to prevent embarrassment; made all the worse by his family’s piety and determination to see the pope before they leave.
Looking at the trivia, it turns out that Woody Allen’s recent 2012 To Rome With Love stole this exact plot line. The White Sheik is a perfect romantic comedy, offering all you’d want from the master, balancing irreverent humor with great heart. From the leads to the minute supporting roles, each character in White Sheik is memorable, with Leopoldo Trieste stealing the entire show; possessing a magnificent ability to play such a goofy role with such heart, as each new scene punches his personality up just a little bit more than before. It’s a funny and fast film.
BELOW: No subtitles, but with Fellini you don't need them
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