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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The White Sheik

Director: Federico Fellini
Country: Italy
Year: 1952

“I would love to see a festival dedicated to first films. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the work that develops later, and sometimes the work never gets better. But sometimes you can see the hints of what would come later bursting through like an eruption from another film entirely. Another universe, almost. Which is why, the first time I saw The White Sheik, I kind of fell in love with it. There is a perfectly ordinary, serviceable, even funny comedy here which proceeds in its broad way for the first twenty minutes or so. But when the action moves to the beach and we happen upon the extraordinary image of Alberto Sordi hanging from a swing that dangles from a point we can’t see in the forest way above him, we are in a realm of – what, exactly? Fantasy? Absurdity? Comic strip? Whatever it was, it would take Fellini the rest of his life to explore it fully. The sequence where our sympathies shift to the husband, where he cries by the fountain and meets the two prostitutes (with Giulietta Masina already called Cabiria), holds the germ of two subsequent films. What I love about this first work is that this sensibility bursts in unannounced, like a magician nobody had booked, at a rather ordinary children’s party.”
Neil Jordan

Background

Back in September, when we watched La Strada, I wrote about Fellini’s life and career up through the release of La Dolce Vita. Today, I’ll give you a brief (mostly Wikipedia-cribbed) rundown on post-La Dolce Vita Fellini.

La Dolce Vita was released in 1960, to wild acclaim and censorious denunciation. In retrospect, it was clearly a transitional film between Fellini’s earlier neo-realist films and his later “art” films, with their infusion of absurdist satire, baroque production design, and fantastical digressions.

It was around this time that Fellini read the autobiography of Carl Jung and became fascinated by dreams and their meanings. He was introduced by a friend to the world of séances and parapsychology, and even dropped LSD. “I was an instrument in a virtual world that constantly renewed its own meaningless image in a living world that was itself perceived outside of nature,” he later wrote, describing the experience. All of these influences are evident in his films, which became increasingly non-linear and dreamlike.

Stung by critics who reviled the director of La Dolce Vita as an amoral monster, Fellini responded with The Temptations of Doctor Antonio (included in the omnibus film Boccaccio ‘70, which, despite its title, was released in 1962). The short film tells the story of a moralist who goes crazy trying to censor a sexy billboard.

Next up was a story about “…a guy (a writer? any kind of professional man? a theatrical producer?) has to interrupt the usual rhythm of his life for two weeks because of a not-too-serious disease. It’s a warning bell: something is blocking up his system.” By the time of the party celebrating the first day of filming, this was about as far as Fellini had gotten on the script. Confronted by the movie stars and technical staff assembled to realize his poorly-defined vision, Fellini was first overwhelmed with shame, and then inspired: “At that very moment everything fell into place… I would make a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make.” This film was eventually titled 8 ½, a reference (at least primarily) to the number of films Fellini had directed up to that point.

Fellini would direct 14 more films before his death, but a handful are generally regarded as his best.

1965: Juliet of the Spirits. A gorgeous, symbol-laden, dreamlike Technicolor showcase for his wife, Giulietta Masina. Masina plays a middle-aged housewife who, after realizing that her husband is a louse and her life is a sham, begins to explore her dreams and nightmares in a quest for self-awareness and self-actualization. Juliet was loosely remade in 1990 by Woody Allen as Alice.

1969: Satyricon. Loosely based on a series of bawdy (and trippy) short stories by Petronius and set during the rule of Emperor Nero, Fellini described this film as a sort of “science fiction of the past.” Vincent Canby called it “the quintessential Fellini film, a travelogue through an unknown galaxy, a magnificently realized movie of his and our wildest dreams.” Critic Pauline Kael dismissed it as “really bad” while author Parker Taylor described it as “the most profoundly homosexual movie in all history.”

1972: Roma. A semi-autobiographical episodic fantasia with Rome as the leading character, Roma consists of a series of scenes contrasting fascist Rome of the 1930’s with the “modern” Rome of the 1970’s. It closes with an unexplained and interminable scene of motorcycles roaring through the streets.

1973: Amarcord. Another episodic and semi-autobiographical film, this time based on Fellini’s (highly fictionalized) memories of his childhood in a small Italian village. The mood is warm and nostalgic, with adolescent sex obsessions given free reign, kooky Italian relatives, and the rise of Fascism.

In 1974, Fellini received a lifetime achievement award at Cannes.

In 1982, Fellini’s artwork was given a gallery exhibition for the first time, in Paris and New York City.

In 1985, he was awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 42nd Venice Film Festival.

Hoping to film an adaptation of Carlos Castaneda’s shamanic counter-culture Don Juan books, Fellini traveled with Castaneda through the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Castaneda vanished, the project fell through, and Fellini later turned the adventure into a graphic novel entitled Trip to Tulum. (Side note: Tulum is where the heroes establish their base at the end of Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror. Also, I’ve been there.)

In April of 1993, Fellini was awarded his fifth Oscar, for lifetime achievement. In June of the same year, he underwent heart bypass surgery. Two months later, he suffered a stroke. After a second stroke, he slipped into a coma. Fellini died on October 31, 1993, one day after his fiftieth wedding anniversary. Five months later, Giulietta Masina died of lung cancer.

Synopsis

A young, naïve, newly-married couple, Ivan and Wanda, arrive in Rome by train. They are flummoxed by the hurly-burly of the Big City. They check into a hotel, and Wanda stands at the window, staring in wide-eyed wonderment at the streets, the buildings, the people.

Ivan is a bit of a fussy prick, scolding his wife for – among other things – riding the elevator alone with the porter. The scandal!

They have plans to meet up with Ivan’s uncle, who “has an important position at the Vatican.” Ivan seems to have the idea that his uncle will be able to give him a leg up, career-wise. Also, he has set up an audience for the young couple with the Pope himself!

Ivan has the whole day mapped out – audience with the Supreme Pontiff, a light lunch with Aunt and Uncle, catacombs and other sightseeing until midnight, and then back to the hotel for an intimate dinner with his new bride, and… well, they did pay extra for the honeymoon suite, after all. (Which reminds me… did I already mention late-80’s pop-metal superstars Honeymoon Suite, and their hit single New Girl Now? I fucking loved that song.)

Wanda seems a bit unsure about the tightly-scripted day to come. When Ivan takes a power nap, she bolts from the hotel on a mysterious errand.

At a theater (or something), she asks to see a Mr. Fernando Rivoli. He isn’t in at the moment, but someone else is: Marilena Alba Vellardi, an editor or writer for a popular fumetti (like a comic book version of a Harlequin romance novel, but with photographs instead of drawings). As it happens, Wanda is a huge fan of the fumetti, and says so: “‘The Starry Abyss,’ ‘Tortured Souls,’ ‘Hearts in the Storm’… I wait all week for my issue of your magazine to arrive. That’s when my real life begins… I remember all your characters – the Countess Lucilla, Felga the Gypsy, Raneiro the Adventurer… but most of all, the White Sheik. Fernando Rivoli is sublime.”

This does not bode well for Wanda’s marriage, methinks.

Back in the hotel, Ivan has discovered his wife’s absence, and is throwing a tantrum. At the fumetti headquarters, the actors are bundled into a truck for transport to a beach, where the day’s action is to be photographed. Wanda, still hoping to meet the White Sheik, joins them. Ivan finds a flirty letter from the White Sheik to his wife, and suspects the worst…

sheik_ivansweaty

…but now his Uncle has arrived with the whole fam-damily, and he’s in furious damage control mode. “Wanda has a terrible headache…” he stammers. “We can see the Pope tomorrow.”

On set, Wanda is panicking. “I have to get back to Rome!” she says, but nobody is listening. She flees through the woods, hoping to find a phone or flag down a taxi, but instead finds (wait for it…) the White Sheik! On an improvised swing hanging between two trees.

Wanda shows him her artwork, Fernando buys her a drink, they dance under the palms… I’m telling you, this will end in tears.

Fernando brings Wanda back to the set and convinces her to play the part of Fatima, lover of the White Sheik.

“Get ready for the rape scene!” shouts the director.

Ivan is sweating it out with the relatives, nervously concocting ever-more-elaborate excuses for his wife’s absence.

During the lunch break, the White Sheik talks Wanda into stealing a boat for a quick joyride.

Wanda is confused by all of these strange feelings. “I feel like crying, and yet I’m so happy…” Sensing an opening, Fernando makes a move, but is denied on the 5-yard line. “I’m not unattached,” admits Wanda. “So what? I’m married!” responds Fernando cheerily.

Ivan has descended into full-blown paranoid craziness. Now he is sweating and fidgeting in the police station, describing his predicament in the third person, accidentally smearing ink on his face, making a nuisance of himself, and weeping openly.

Back on set, Fernando is getting a tongue-lashing for keeping the crew waiting while he was out playing on the boat. “It was this idiot’s fault!” he sputters, pointing at Wanda.

Wait, it gets worse: His wife just showed up! She’s a beefy, imposing woman, and she glares with fiery eyes at the flustered Wanda. “Whore!” she growls, before slapping the much smaller woman across the face.

Wanda again flees into the woods. The day’s shooting comes to an end, and the crew packs up for the return trip to Rome. Wanda is left behind.

Ivan’s family, deeply suspicious, drops him off at the hotel. They make plans to meet again the following morning; the audience with Pontifex Maximus has been successfully postponed.

Ivan sits in the street and weeps. Giulietta Masina (Fellini’s wife), whom we recognize from La Strada, approaches. “What’s the matter?” she asks. “Why did she take off? Did you beat her?”

Ivan proudly shows her photos of his bride, and for the first time, he seems vulnerable and even likable.

Wanda has gotten a ride home from a camel-wrangler from the photo shoot. Arriving at the hotel, she realizes that she is still wearing the inappropriately sexy clothes of Fatima. Ashamed, she calls from a nearby bar. “Tell him not to expect me,” she tells the desk clerk. “I have been cast in the mud, and he will never see me again.”

“Let me write this down,” mumbles the clerk.

Wanda goes down to the beach and tries to commit suicide, but only manages to get her dress muddy.

Next morning, a bedraggled Ivan is on the verge of telling his relatives everything when the phone rings! It’s Wanda, and she’s in the hospital. Ivan shoos his family off to St. Peter’s, promising to meet them in a half hour, and then rushes to retrieve his bride.

At the hospital, he finds Wanda disheveled and weeping disconsolately.

“The Pope is expecting us at 11:00,” he announces. “You have five minutes to get dressed!”

They race to the Vatican and familial disaster is narrowly averted. Ivan resolutely marches his wife in to see the infallible Dominus Apostolicus, eyes straight ahead, expression grim.

“Ivan, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Wanda whispers. “You’re my White Sheik.”

Ivan looks at his wife with rediscovered love, and they proceed into the glorious presence of the Vicar of Christ.

What I Liked

It took me a while to get used to him, but I ended up greatly enjoying and admiring Leopoldo Trieste as the very-nearly-cuckolded husband Ivan. Nervously twitching, forever mopping his brow, eyes threatening to pop out of his head, pompous and terrified in equal measure, he gives a fearlessly physical comedic performance.

I enjoyed the scenes on the fumetti set; as in 8 ½, Fellini communicates his abiding love for and fascination with the artifice and the chaos of showbiz, the act of creation somehow transcending the pettiness of the creators.

Almost forgot: I loved the last-act cameo by Giulietta Masina, who is always delightful and impishly alive. Too bad she didn’t have a bigger role. Notice that she is apparently playing the same character that she plays in Nights of Cabiria.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Compared to Fellini masterpieces like 8 ½, La Dolce Vita, or La Strada, The White Sheik felt like a bit of fluff. The characters are too broadly drawn to be really engaging, the satirical targets too easy.

Apart from that, The White Sheik feels too much like a transitional film, an unstable mixture of neo-realism and broad farce.

Should You See It?

If you love Fellini, you should see it just to gain context for the flowering of similar themes in his later, better films. If you’re interested in Italian cinema or culture in general, cinematic depictions of Rome or Roman Catholicism, you will find plenty of interest in The White Sheik. If none of that describes you, I would advise you to begin your Fellini-watching with a double bill of La Strada and La Dolce Vita.

Next: Wild Strawberries

4 Comments

  1. Oh my … guilty pleasures …

  2. I keep watching this and drumming on my desk:

    http://youtu.be/uK0AmgDGpPo

  3. Jason, I believe I have that Honeymoon Suite song on 7 inch vinyl … must get back to you on this. Jeff

  4. In the 1970’s Gene Wilder made a film entitled “The World’s Greatest Lover” – that film is a remake (of sorts) of “The White Sheik.” In that film, Carol Kane – playing Gene’s young bride, has fallen in love with Rudolph Valentino. On a trip to California, she becomes obsessed with meeting Rudy and goes to the film studio, eventually getting put on screen. Meanwhile a fraught Gene is dealing with her missing and dealing with family members. To make a long story short, Rudy finally beds Carol but it’s actually Gene in disguise – all is right in the end.

    Having seen “TWGL” a couple times (and it’s a cute film) I had a sense of déjà-vu with “TWS” (though, of course, “TWS” came first).

    Also, Jason and I do not discuss the films we see before hand but a chance phone call with Jason he announced to me that he felt the film was “fluff.” Fluff is a good word for it.

    What we find in “TWS” is a young couple, newly married, ready to get started with their lives and honeymooning in Rome. Seems the husband has an uncle who is in with the pope and he’s arranged a meeting for him and his new bride (and a couple dozen other couples – I assume).

    But…your newlywed gal knows that there’s a movie studio or TV studio near by and a gentleman only known as “TWS” stars in these films. So she sneaks off to visit the star to confess that she has sent him 3 letters. Through a couple misunderstandings the next thing you know, she’s on the set 45 km away from Rome.

    Back in Rome the new husband doesn’t know what to do. Seems he’s a bit anal retentive and has scheduled out their day down to the letter (plus what of the pope?). So he makes excuses to his family and frets quite a bit (and, I noticed, looked a lot like an Italian Gene Wilder).

    While he panics, Wanda, the girl, is meeting her star and she’s enamored with him. Honestly there’s nothing about him that is even partially that attractive. He’s overweight, not dashing and, well, kind of a dick.

    As in “The Worlds Greatest Lover” – Carol Kane realizes that fantasy is not as good as reality – so does Wanda. Her dreams/fantasy dashed, she returns to Rome, finally, in the evening. Threatens to kill herself but then realizes that she loves her husband (or something) and returns to him.

    The next day all is well and they go see the pope and get free Vatican coasters (okay, I’m kidding about the last part).

    WHAT IS STAR-MAKING

    The acting is quite good all around. The husband does well in his role of harried, confused, slightly mad self. The actress playing Wanda does a fine job as do all the rest. Plus she’s as cute as can be.

    The film is, definitely, cute.

    WHAT IS STAR-DESTROYING

    The casting of the actor playing “The White Sheik” is just kind of confusing. They couldn’t find a more handsome debonair actor to play the role? Also, I didn’t understand if this was a film, a television show, a movie serial (having read Jason’s review – I now realize it’s just a photo-shoot but, still…feh). I wasn’t buying the attraction to this guy.

    IS IT POPE-ALICIOUS?

    The film was good and cute and funny, in moments. But it was, as Jason described, fluff. Not enough to recommend.

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