Friday, September 19, 2008

The White Sheik

By Elise Nakhnikian

An officious social climber who has his honeymoon trip to Rome planned down to the minute, Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) of The White Sheik looks as if he’s never done a spontaneous thing in his life. So you’re hardly surprised when his beautiful bride Wanda (Brunella Bovo) escapes at the first opportunity, disappearing from their hotel as soon as they arrive.

But part of the charm of this light-footed farce is in the sympathy we develop for both of these foolish innocents. The White Sheik is the first film Federico Fellini directed, and it’s lighter than most, more a comedy of manners than an existential journey. Fellini fans may miss what they see as the maestro’s melancholy and contemplative side – though personally, I like this movie better than some of his more heavy-handed efforts. But they’ll find plenty of his trademark touches here, starting with his genuine, if somewhat patronizing, affection for his characters – especially the colorful artists and mountebanks who create our popular culture.

On the Criterion DVD of the movie, Trieste talks about how Fellini recruited him for the part, assuring him he was “born to be a clown” though he had never acted at the time and took himself quite seriously as a writer. Another commentator says Fellini picked Trieste in part for that self-seriousness and for his fussy way of dressing and used the actor’s traits to help mold the character – as he often did in later movies. The process works: we care what happens to this the pompous, status-conscious rube.

Meanwhile, Bovo gives shy, sheltered Wanda a sweetness and sense of wide-eyed wonder that trigger our protective instincts, even as her beauty and vulnerability bring out the wolf in the men she encounters.

Wanda is a great fan of the melodramatic photographed Italian comic strips known as fumetti (literally, “little puffs of smoke.”) Her favorite is The White Sheik, so she takes advantage of her trip to the big city to seek out the Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who plays the sheik, at the studio where he works. The comic adventure that ensues seems thrilling and perilous to her.

Flattered by the admiration of their beautiful young fan, the troupe embraces Wanda, bringing her with them to film on the beach that doubles as the desert in their photo shoots. She winds up with a part in the production and a romantic boat ride with Rivoli himself. The contrast between her idealized image of Rivoli and the doughy, craven womanizer that he turns out to be is an old joke – Shakespeare did it with Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he undoubtedly stole it from somebody else – but Fellini updates it deftly, making her awestruck admiration a comment on celebrity worship and the mesmerizing power of pop culture. But reality soon crashes into her fantasy.

The story was originated and cowritten by Michelangelo Antonioni, but ultimately it’s those Fellini touches that make this movie work, from the carnivalesque Nino Rota music to the whimsical sets and stylized imagery to the gorgeous, creamy lighting and cinematography. There’s also a lovely little cameo appearance by Fellini’s wife, actress Giulietta Masina, as Cabiria, the friendly prostitute she later played in his Nights of Cabiria.

The White Sheik was a flop when it was released in 1952, dismissed by most critics as inconsequential. Neorealism was the trend at the time in Italy, and it produced some great works, movies like Open City and The Bicycle Thief. But if every movie were that intense and realistic, going to the movies would be like eating nothing but vegetables for dinner every night, and we all like a little dessert now and then.

In the world of The White Sheik, a fire eater or a camel is liable to show up any time, a character known as “the evil Bedouin” turns out to be a wisecracking flirt, and a well-oiled pickup line may be interrupted by a bonk on the head by a wayward sail. It’s a duplicitous yet marvelous place, a richly entertaining fantasy that existed only in Fellini’s imagination – until he put it in the movies so we could dream it too.

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