The White Sheik (Italy, 1952) * * * 1/2
D: Federico Fellini
Why not four stars? The curious thing about rating films under such a strict system is that little invisible rules begin to take effect. When you rate one film by a master such as Fellini, you tend to rate it against his other work, not against ordinary films. Compared to ordinary films, this is four stars. Compared to other Fellinis, well, it falls just short of the heights he would hit within a few years. But it's transporting. Brunello Bovo plays Wanda, a young country girl who has just been married to Ivan Cavalli, who comes from a respected family and has connections to the Vatican. They honeymoon in Rome, but unbeknownst to her husband, Wanda has ambitions to steal away for a few moments to deliver a portrait of the famous film star Fernando Rivoli, the "White Sheik," at the film studio just down the street; she's been writing Fernando letters, and secretly hopes to meet him. She gets that chance when her husband takes a nap, and, leaving the bath running (soon to flood the hotel), she scampers off to the studio with her White Sheik portrait clutched in her nervous hands. As this is a Fellini film, the studio lot is more like a three-ring circus, and soon being swept along into the country with promising hopes of meeting the film star. At first the world of the movies is magical, intoxicating, and better than she could have dreamed; everyone is friendly and eager to have her along (well, except for a few of the harem girls), and she even encounters the famous lothario himself, suspended in the air on a swing held high in the trees. But eventually reality begins to impede on her fantasies, and poor Ivan, going to great lengths to mislead his family as to Wanda's whereabouts, discovers a letter from Wanda to the Sheik, and faces the ruin of his marriage as well as his name.
As with Fellini's films with his wife Giulietta Masini--she appears here, too briefly, as the prostitute Cabiria--the emotional weight of the film, as well as much of its plotting, depends greatly on the wide-eyed expressions of his actors. Bovo, so ravishing here, is introduced as though she's under hypnosis; pulled about by her husband from the train to the hotel, she is buffeted about by him, the crowds, and the bellboys, and eventually carried off prematurely to her hotel room, all while resembling nothing more than a buoy bobbing about in the ocean. The first time she smiles is when she's told that the film studio is just a ten-minute walk from her room. When she's in the studio, she's nothing but fawning adoration, delivered into her storybook fantasies; notice that she never takes her eyes off Fernando, even when she thinks she is. He, of course, recognizes an opportunity when he sees one, and tells her everything she wants to hear, including a ludicrous fairy tale which casts his wife as an evil sorceress, while drinking every inch of the girl with his eyes. Meanwhile, Leopoldo Trieste, as Ivan, carries out the farcical obligations of the comedy expertly, pouncing on his relatives each time they try to visit the room where only he knows Wanda isn't, just like a certain Basil Fawlty might (and has). He's most effective when he encounters Cabiria and her fellow prostitute on an empty street at night, as they listen to his sad tale, looking over pictures of Wanda and encountering, improbably, a fire-eater on the street, whom Cabiria cajols into spitting flames. It's a brilliant scene, and with its particular mixture of melancholy, enchantment, and earthiness, suggests a world and a direction which the film could have gone. Naturally Fellini thought so too, and so he made Nights of Cabiria a few years later.
But The White Sheik is a very different film, a straightforward comedy farce that happens to shine in the details: the hotel manager who fruitlessly tries to pawn his postcards; the self-absorbed harem girl who bellydances behind the cameras; the half-dressed man who, mesmerized by the film production, manages to ruin all the shots; the girl with the White Sheik comic book who begins to observe Wanda and Fernando with all the romantic sighs as though she were just watching another of his films; the way Wanda and Ivan, reunited, finally communicate by merely blubbering at each other. What holds these anecdotal scenes together is Fellini's considerable energy in his editing and the movements of the bodies within the mise-en-scene, particularly in the 8 1/2-style scenes of shooting the film. He would master this over his next couple of films, in particular I Vitelloni. But there is also a moral weight which binds these very Catholic characters to the earth. Wanda struggles with the meaning of her fantasies, while Fernando tries to open her imagination to their erotic possibilities. Ivan, spending the course of the day coming to the realization that his wife has inexplicably left him, accepts the invitation of a prostitute with a weary surrender; he doesn't want her, but feels he ought to lead her back to his hotel anyhow, for this is now his lot in life. When Wanda, crushed by guilt, makes an impotent attempt at suicide, The White Sheik teases at black comedy, because the comic result is so unexpected. The viewer is granted a God-like seat to the action, watching these somewhat witless characters be tossed about by "cruel fate," as Wanda puts it. What's remarkable about the film is that you're still in suspense, and still care very deeply about them.