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THE WHITE SHEIK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Alberto Sordi, Giulietta Masina
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Remembrances, Printed Essay & Biography Excerpt
Length:  86 Minutes
Release Date:  April 29, 2003

“Our real life is in our dreams…but sometimes dreams are a fatal abyss.”

Film ***

What would film criticism be without Federico Fellini?  For myself, I find nothing quite as lively as a discussion of the influential Italian master, for it seems few critics can agree on exactly where to place his particular brand of greatness in the spectrum, or even which of his films reflect that greatness and which ones detract from it.

If I say, as I usually do, that I generally prefer the early Fellini works (8 ˝ and prior), I’m bound to ruffle the feathers of some critics like Roger Ebert, who are adamant that Fellini’s true artistic significance actually began with 8 ˝ and didn’t end with it, and that films like Juliet of the Spirits, La Dolce Vita, Satyricon and others are singular works of vision and courage.  And my response would probably be to suggest that those later had foundations so weak that they collapsed under the weight of the master’s excesses.  And so on.

The conclusion?  None.  But it still gives me great pleasure to take a look back at one of Fellini’s early offerings, especially when it’s The Criterion Collection that affords me that look.  With the release of The White Sheik, we get to go way back indeed.  This was Fellini’s first film as solo director, and a rather unique entry into his filmography.

Stylistically, it’s an amusing, energetic little comedy filled with little touches of pleasure, but probably ultimately signifying nothing.  It follows a newly wed couple through the first two critical days of their honeymoon, but doesn’t really conclude with a complete impression at the end that things will be better for them than we initially thought.  Perhaps a hint, not much more.

That couple is Ivan Cavalli (Trieste) and his new bride, Wanda (Bovo).  They have come to Rome to honeymoon, but the eternal city doesn’t seem to inspire a great deal of romance in Ivan.  He has their time planned out on a pristinely composed schedule, which includes family gatherings, meeting the Pope, and (thankfully) even a little time for consummation. 

But Wanda is harboring a tidy little secret.  Having been a fan of the photo comic series “The White Sheik”, especially the man in the title role Fernando (Sordi), she has accepted an open invitation to visit him if ever in Rome.  And when in Rome…

So while Wanda sneaks off to indulge in a little fantasy, the bewildered Ivan is left beside himself, trying to A) uncover the mystery of what happened to his wife and B) preventing his eager family from finding out she’s gone!

The film skillfully juxtaposes both stories for a rough but elegant comic effect.  Fernando is, amusingly enough, no different behind the scenes than in front of the camera.  Always “on” and with a smile you can imagine him practicing for hours in front of the mirror, he manages to come on to Wanda in hysterically funny ways.  Essentially, he shovels the fertilizer with great gusto.

A saddened Ivan, meanwhile, ends up alone in the streets of Rome, comforted by a pair of prostitutes including the plucky Cabiria (Masina).  But the nice surprise is that while both Ivan and Wanda are confronted with a perfect opportunity to be unfaithful to a marriage we don’t see much stock in, they don’t.

Eventually, the couple comes back together, Wanda meets the family, and the two walk arm in arm to meet His Holiness, where they also essentially confess their fidelity to one another.  Is this a fresh new beginning for them?  Are they realizing that they do in fact love one another?  It’s nice to think so.

Fellini crafts his comedy with a style derivative of the silent era, or perhaps the Laurel and Hardy films of the early 30s.  Dialogue is important, but the master communicates much with body placement, facial expression, and camera moves as well.  Some of what he injects is deliberately lowbrow, but appropriate, because the story he’s telling isn’t exactly highbrow.  The characters themselves aren't particularly deep, but filled with little touches we can instinctively respond to.

In the end, The White Sheik serves as both an enjoyable comic diversion and a glimpse at an artist in development.  This wasn’t yet the Fellini capable of constructing La Strada or Nights of Cabiria, but could be considered an early promise that the master would later deliver on.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, would of course later reprise her role as Cabiria as a starring role in Nights of Cabiria.  Film connoisseurs who have that Criterion DVD offering have already enjoyed a look at her performance in The White Sheik among the extras!

Video ***

For a film over fifty years old, Criterion manages yet again to deliver a quality product.  The black and white photography renders quite nicely and mostly cleanly, without distortions or undue grain.  A few darker stretches show some of the print’s wear, but only in small doses and considering the age, well within acceptable limits. 

Audio **

Like all Fellini films, this one has post-dubbed dialogue, so you may have to get used to the fact that spoken words, though clear enough, don’t always sound natural in the setting.  Of course, being an Italian film, the dialogue doesn’t matter as much.  Nino Rota’s score is lively and fun, and a nice addition to the mix, but as with most older mono offerings, the soundtrack is neither above nor below board.

Features **

The disc includes a half hour featurette “Remembrances”, featuring new interviews with actors Brunella Bobo, Leopoldo Trieste, and Fellini biographer Moraldo Rossi.  All talk about the master, and how this film in particular has gone through changes in perception over the years.  The booklet includes both a new essay (with Orson Welles’ thoughts, no less) and an excerpt from the biography I Fellini by Charlotte Chandler.  A small touch of animation in the main menu screen is also quite charming.

Summary:

The White Sheik is delightful early Fellini, and can be considered a stepping stone towards his greater works to come.  Fans of the master or those just looking for a light hour and a half romp should find this an enjoyable offering.  Kudos to Criterion for continuing their terrific efforts in preserving these important films of Fellini on DVD for fans everywhere.