Saturday, November 21, 2015

Film Review: The White Sheik

"The White Sheik"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Who doesn't dream of one day meeting the rich and famous? Who wouldn't like to run into a celebrity on a crowded street? Imagine being able to sit down and chat with that celebrity. Imagine if you were attracted to one another. The great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini tells us what fools we are to think such things in his romantic comedy "The White Sheik" (1952).

"The White Sheik" was Mr. Fellini's first feature-length film he directed solo. His previous effort, which also marked his directorial debut, "Variety Lights" (1950), was co-directed by Alberto Lattuada. However, with "The White Sheik" Mr. Fellini firmly establishes ideas and themes which would would be addressed in future films.

The film focuses on a newly wed couple arriving in Rome for their honeymoon. They will only be in the city for two days, mostly to meet the groom's family. The husband is Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) and the bride is Wanda (Brunella Bovo). Ivan is the more level-headed of the two and perhaps a tad pretentious. Ivan is a worry wart. He wants to make sure everything on their honeymoon runs smoothly. He has every moment of their time together planned out. Mostly importantly however he wants to make sure neither he nor Wanda embarrass themselves in front of his family, especially his uncle (Ugo Attanasio), whom Ivan goes on and on about as being an important man in Rome. One day, Ivan believes he will be as important as his uncle.

Wanda on the other hand is shown to be a bit naive. She is a dreamer. She also has other plans, unbeknownst to Ivan, during their time in Rome. The audience slowly learns Wanda is a big fan of a comic strip character called the White Sheik (Alberto Sordi) and must see him during her visit.

The comic strip uses live actors to play the roles of various characters as a camera photographs the images which are collect for the strip. Unfortunately I cannot think of an American equivalent to compare it to.

Ivan and Wanda are separated when she sneaks out of their hotel room to visit the studio the strip is filmed at while Ivan must come up with excuses for Wanda's absence to his family. All Ivan knows is someone who signed a letter "the white sheik" has agreed to meet Wanda during her visit to Rome. Ivan, naturally concludes, "the white sheik" is a pet name and Wanda is having an affair. Pride however prevents him from admitting this to his family.

Federico Fellini conceived "The White Sheik" during a period in Italian cinema known as the "Neo-Realist" period, which began post-World War two up until 1952. Many film historians believe De Sica's "Umberto D." (1952) presented the end of the movement. The films were supposed to show the daily hardships of the working class after the war and comment on the destruction the war caused. Audiences wanted to see movies they could relate to. In order to make their movies more convincing non-actors were used.

Contrast this setting to Mr. Fellini's "The White Sheik". Here is a comedy showing society for the daydreamers we are. There is nothing realistic about the movie. There is no "white sheik", only an actor pretending to be him. There is no great romance, like the ones we read about in novels. People must settle for the Ivan's in the world, the serious minded, pretentious individuals we encounter on a daily basis. These characters represent the theme of fantasy vs reality, a dominate theme in the work of Mr. Fellini.

In Peter Bondanella's extremely valuable book "Italian Cinema: From the Neorealism to the Present" Mr. Bondanella's describes Mr. Fellini's uses of the main characters as symbols of this theme by writing about a "clash of reality and illusion and the tension between mask and face, Fellini uses the fastidious Ivan Cavalli and his wife Wanda to embody each aspect of this conflict." Mr. Bondanella further explains "Superficial piety and patriotism characterize Ivan's view of life" whereas "Wanda embodies a rather naive attempt to break out of provincial forms and her conventional marriage into a world of illusion and fantasy".

It is through this we can see a break from the neorealistic mindset. Mr. Fellini is not using cinema as a "break" from fantasy. Cinema is not something to use to show audiences the struggle of everyday living but rather cinema is something audiences use to escape the struggles of the everyday. People need fantasy in their lives. The difficult part is finding a proper balance. We all have a bit of Ivan in us (responsibility) and Wanda (escapism). Both are important to society as we deal with the misery of everyday life. One could argue "The White Sheik" is about finding the fantasy in reality.

What makes "The White Sheik" so enjoyable is the way it explores its ideas and theme. This could have been a serious movie but Mr. Fellini has a good sense of humor. It makes it all the more surprising Michelangelo Antonioni, another brilliant Italian filmmaker, helped with the story. Mr. Antonioni's films are not laugh riots. But this does make "The White Sheik" more than merely a "silly comedy". The movie does have strong ideas not only about fantasy vs reality but relationships and romance and an element of fantasy which goes into that. Plus in our celebrity obsessed world today's audiences should be able to relate to Wanda's desire to track down the white sheik.

Brunella Bovo was a nice choice to play Wanda. She was a young, somewhat pretty actress, whom audiences could perfectly accept in the role. Ms. Bovo conveys a child-like quality to her performance. I felt this aspect is the strongest quality of her performance. It reminded me of Mr. Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, whom in future movies would also exhibit a child-like quality in her performances. In fact, I wondered why didn't Mr. Fellini cast his wife in the lead role. Ms. Masina does briefly appear in the movie however as a prostitute named Cabiria, whom Mr. Fellini would later make a central character in his movie, "Nights of Cabiria" (1957).

Alberto Sordi on the other hand was well-known to audiences for his comedic roles even by 1952. His career dates back to 1937. Sordi finds humor in playing the white sheik by using a lot of exaggeration. There is nothing realistic about him. This acting choice also serves a purpose by promoting the movie's theme. Nothing is real. Sordi is not a sheik. He is a married man willing to cheat on his wife with Wanda. Sordi has that air of importance about himself that Leopoldo Trieste displays in his interpretation of Ivan. Both men pretend to be more than they are. Both want respect. And Wanda may be naive enough to believe both of them. But what will happen to her when she realizes things are not what they seem?

Federico Fellini, even at this young stage in his career, displays a great visual eye and a great ability to pace his story. "The White Sheik" doesn't feel long. It is never boring. It has an almost carnival or circus atmosphere to it, as do most of Mr. Fellini's movies. The musical score by long time collaborator Nino Rota only adds to that effect. Events seem to be spontaneous and heightened for comedic purposes.

"The White Sheik" may not immediately come to mind as one of Federico Fellini's great movies, as it is over shadowed by titles such as "La Strada" (1954), "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "8 1/2" (1963) however it remains an important film giving us a look into the artistic mindset of a developing filmmaker. All of the elements which make a great Fellini film are here. Audiences should not forget "The White Sheik".

[P.S. one can also see the influence this movie had on Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" (2012)]