Federico Fellini’s ‘The White Sheik’ (1952)

In Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), Italian film director Guido Anselmi struggles to simultaneously resolve his messy personal life and break through an artistic block that’s preventing him from starting his next film. In the course of his existential search for truth and meaning in his life, Guido sifts through his childhood memories, fantasies, and dreams, which Fellini weaves into a stream-of-consciousness narrative that continually shifts between the objective or “real” world and the subjective, interior world of his protagonist’s mind. In the final scene, the two worlds are joined together as Guido reconciles his inner struggle and comes to terms with both his life and his art.

The fusion of the real and the imaginary is also at the center of Fellini’s first and one of his most underrated films, The White Sheik (1952). In this comical, sentimental tale of an ill-fated Roman honeymoon, Fellini had evidently not yet fully realized (or perhaps was in the process of working through) the vital role the imaginary plays in our lives. Like Guido, The White Sheik‘s Wanda (Brunella Bovo) has a life-changing wake-up call when she crosses the line into the imaginary. But while Guido’s fantasy life helps him attain a higher power of self-awareness, it is the shattering of Wanda’s romantic illusions that makes her realize how living out one’s fantasies is a dangerous business.

Wanda’s plunge into reality begins upon her arrival in Rome with her new husband, the fastidious Ivan Cavalli (Leopold Trieste), who has their two-day trip, including the consummation of their marriage, planned down to the minute. His plan to introduce Wanda to his relatives is disrupted when the bride sneaks out to meet her idol, Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who portrays “The White Sheik,” a popular fotoromanzicharacter. An equivalent to the modern daytime soap opera, fotoromanzis were weekly magazines featuring stories of romance and high adventure in the form of photographs laid out in a comic book style. Wanda, a hopeless romantic, lives vicariously through the magazine. As she explains to the editor, “I wait all week for my issue of your magazine to arrive… That’s when my real life begins.”

When she meets the Sheik on the set of his latest photo-romance, she assumes another persona entirely and introduces herself as “Passionate Dolly,” the name she signed to her fan letters. She finally crosses the line separating reality and illusion when she accepts an invitation by Rivoli to appear in the magazine as one of his harem girls. When the Sheik shows his true colors and tries — but fails — to seduce her, Wanda is devastated and ashamed to the point of becoming suicidal.

Cross-cutting between a distraught Wanda and a confused Ivan, who is frantically searching for his wife and trying to keep his cool while hiding the fact that she has disappeared from his relatives, Fellini offers a satisfying blend of pathos and comedy. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for the naïve Wanda when the Sheik makes his true intentions clear, or the otherwise unemotional Ivan as he pours his heart out about his missing wife to a pair of prostitutes (one of whom, Cabiria, played by Giulietta Masina, would be the focus on Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria). At the same time, Fellini has great fun exposing the artifice of the fotoromanzi by showing how little passion, let alone creativity, on the part of the actors and the crew, goes into the magazines’ production.

Yet these pleasures pale next to Trieste’s skillful performance as Ivan. The wide-eyed actor’s transformation from a control-freak to a downtrodden man overwhelmed by the loss of his wife, while at the same time trying to hide the truth from his relatives, is masterful. Fellini’s producer wanted a comic actor for the part, but the director insisted on casting Trieste, an unknown writer at the time with little acting experience, because his personality closely resembled that of the character. He does, indeed, embody the role. The Criterion DVD includes exclusive interviews with both Bruno and Trieste, who passed away this past January at the age of 85 (Sordi died in February). Trieste describes in comical detail his first meeting with Fellini and his reluctance to take on the role, such that the director ended up tailoring the character more specifically to his personality.

In the film’s sentimental ending, the reunited couple is seen heading, along with Ivan’s relatives, toward St. Peter’s for an audience with the Pope. Wanda assures her husband that she is still innocent and pure and, with tears in her eyes, tells Ivan, “You’re my White Sheik.” Nevertheless, the doubtful look on his face leaves the audience wondering if perhaps Ivan will ever be able to fulfill the role. But perhaps it is Fellini telling us that he is uncertain about what the future might hold for Wanda and Ivan and maybe there’s nothing wrong with having a little fantasy in our lives, as long as we stick close to home.