The White Sheik: The Criterion Collection
When Peter Bogdanovich, in his sprawling interview book This is Orson Welles, asked the tragic genius of American film for his assessment of Federico Fellini, he weighed in with what has become the near-conventional wisdom regarding the Italian filmmaker's legendary style: "Fellini is essentially a small-town boy who's never really come to Rome," Welles said. "He's still dreaming about it. And we should be very grateful for those dreams. In a way, he's still standing outside looking in through the gates." It comes as no surprise that this statement is quoted by Jonathan Rosenbaum in his essay accompanying The Criterion Collection's new release of the Mediterranean maestro's first solo directorial effort, The White Sheik, which Welles considered "the best of all" of Fellini's work. Expanded from an idea by Michelangelo Antonioni, who had originally intended to direct the feature himself, it's a film too unsteady on its feet to be placed among the filmmaker's best, but there's a rambunctious confidence at work that infuses the picture with a circus-like ebullience that's classic Fellini. Most intriguingly, there are also a few dark ambiguities in the storytelling that steer the film into some choppy theatrical waters, subtly staining the edges of what is, for the most part, a gently whimsical departure from the then-prevalent Neorealism aesthetic. The first line in The White Sheik is a breathless "Rome!" As uttered with boyish wonder by the newlywed Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste), it's the perfect spoken introduction to the cinema of Federico Fellini, and to the universe of this particular film. Having just arrived in the city for their honeymoon, Ivan and his bride Wanda (Brunella Bovo) are not exactly the picture of the happy couple. Ivan is an uptight, would-be careerist preoccupied with making a good impression on his uncle, a well-placed official at the Vatican. Toward this end, Ivan has drawn up a carefully regimented schedule for their time in Rome, the highlight of which is an audience with the Pope. But from the very beginning, Wanda is distracted. She has her own surreptitious appointment to keep: a meeting with the great Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the lead "actor" in the popular fumetti strip "The White Sheik." (Fumetti essentially were comic books with photos.) Unbeknownst to Ivan, Wanda has been corresponding with Rivoli through a series of fan letters under the nom de plume "Passionate Dolly" and has promised to visit the actor if she's ever in Rome; thus, she clumsily invents an excuse to avoid Ivan's watchful gaze for an hour and trots down to Rivoli's nearby workplace. After a series of humorous complications, Wanda quickly finds herself being whisked off to Rivoli's latest shoot, and the actor immediately sets about romancing her. Meanwhile, a stunned Ivan spends the day with his uncle's family, concocting a fake illness to explain his wife's baffling absence as he attempts to piece together the mystery of her disappearance for himself.
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As satire, The White Sheik effortlessly dispels the insanely unrealistic notion of romance propagated by the fumetti craze that captivated the imaginations of many an unhappy housewife in postwar Italy. When Wanda first meets Rivoli, he appears as if out of a dream, swinging from a pair of tall palm trees and serenading her with his pleasant tenor. It's a smashingly seductive moment a moment most likely longed for by Wanda since the first day of her courtship with the drearily average Ivan. But soon it's revealed that Rivoli, while an expert at playing the Casanova on the page, is an adulterous lothario who turns cowardly cuckold the minute his domineering wife shows up on set. Her illusions shattered, Wanda returns to Rome, but she cannot bring herself to face Ivan. What makes The White Sheik such a slyly subversive stick in the eye of traditional romanticism is the way Ivan handles the pain of rejection by spending the night with a prostitute (though not the one played by Giulietta Masina, who makes an enchanting cameo as the lively Cabiria several years before the character would be given her own movie). It's unclear whether Ivan availed himself of the woman's services, but the shamed manner in which he greets his uncle's family the morning after suggests that they didn't spend the evening playing bridge. It is only after this drastic action that Ivan is rewarded with the return of his wife, with whom he is reunited in a sanitarium after her comically failed suicide attempt. Rather than ascertain the depth of Wanda's betrayal, Ivan simply moans like a wounded mutt and tells her (out of the residual guilt from his own actions, perhaps) that he'd rather not know what happened. A few moments later, they're marching toward the Vatican, drenched in sin, and assuring each other of their unsullied "innocence". What's wonderful about this moment is how Fellini has constructed it so that it plays both ways: Is Ivan truthfully echoing Wanda's profession of purity, or does he figure he's simply lying along with her? Either interpretation is possible, but what is certain is that both Ivan and Wanda are no longer susceptible to ridiculous romantic ideals; they're merely happy with each other. In other words, the marriage actually stands a chance.
The Criterion Collection's DVD release of The White Sheik presents the film in its original full-frame (1.33:1) aspect ratio struck from a 35mm fine-grain positive with monaural audio in Dolby Digital 1.0. The disc also sports a new English subtitle translation with dialogue that's more natural to the characters (Wanda now despairs that dreams are a "bottomless pit" rather than a "fatal abyss"). Extras include an essay from Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, an excerpt from Charlotte Chandler's biography I, Fellini, and a "Remembrances" featurette with new interviews from Brunella Bovo, Moraldo Rossi and the late Leopoldo Trieste (30 min.). Keep-case.