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When Real Life Begins: On Fellini's 'The White Sheik'

Alberto Sordi as Fernando Rivoli in The White Sheik (1952) (courtesy of Film Forum)

Fellini is the master of blurring the lines between the real and the surreal, demonstrating the overriding imbrication of the familiar and the fantastic. In The White Sheik, currently playing at NYC's Film Forum, he inspires wonder and bemusement.

Days drag by in a lockstep march of the ever-same. We fall into routines. We are, after all, creatures that require a certain amount of routine, creatures that crave order. Routines order our experience of the world, they infuse reality with a predictability that vouchsafes our precarious sense of security. Accidents befall us. Fortune abandons us. Impediments to our desire arise unbidden, threatening our illusion of control.

And so, we make our world far more regimented than it has to be out of a kind of necessity. If we know what happens next, we feel that we have, in some mysterious manner, made it happen. We become the authors of our own existence precisely by sapping some of the vitality out of that existence, by making it foreseeable, by replicating each day on the pattern of what worked before, by making life bland.

And yet, the world brims with possibility, with the unforeseen, with the small shreds of magic that appear in the secret corners of our quotidian experience. A furtive and unidentified sound where there ought to be silence, the strange lambency of the fading light against familiar edifices, the shocking synchronicity arising from the instant materialization of a desire: these are magical elements in our lives.

These shreds of magic can easily be ignored. In fact, most of us ignore them most of the time. To attend to these minor emanations from the beyond (beyond the normative, beyond the expected) would be to lose our grasp on the reality we believe we create for ourselves. To indulge in the fantastic is to acquiesce to a world beyond our reach, beyond our conceptual mastery. We, however, require this loss of control in order to feel alive. A routine, as comforting as it may be, is vitiating; fantasy revitalizes, makes us alive to possibility.

Dancers by hsvbooth (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Despite our attempts to segregate them, reality and fantasy are not the opposites they are often portrayed to be. They are, at best, different ways of understanding the world around us. But beware. Those eschewing the fantastic, those insisting on a regulated and ever-familiar world may find that the outré impinges upon them suddenly and unrelentingly, breaking in on them unawares and finding them without protection. Those longing for escape into the extraordinary may reach their surfeit and yearn for some modicum of familiarity, some stable ground upon which to build an identity that doesn't constantly dissipate into the immediacy of the ever-new. This is the lesson imparted by Federico Fellini in his debut film as sole director: Lo sceicco bianco or The White Sheik (1952).

Fellini is, of course, the master of blurring the lines between the real and the surreal, demonstrating the overriding imbrication of the familiar and the fantastic. In his best and most revered works — La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965)—the boundary separating seeming fact and lived fiction, the mundane and the marvelous, reveals itself to be entirely porous. The three films mentioned collapse the distinction altogether, leaving protagonist and audience alike incapable of discerning what is real and what imagined. Typically, in Fellini there is no abiding difference between the two. The imagined suffuses the real, becomes real as a coping strategy, haunts the real as its undigested and undigestible remainder, a surplus that suffuses the whole and threatens to obviate it.

The world of 8 ½ is not the world of The White Sheik. In this world one constantly chooses between the real and the surreal; rather than the quotidian being haunted by the fantastic, the fantastic steals moments away from the real and ultimately collapses under its own weight—which still doesn't mitigate its essential role in conducting a life. Yes, we choose between the fantastic and the real but we make that choice continually, returning over and again to the marvelous for its ability to infuse that modicum of magic back into the everyday.

The White Sheik opens as Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) arrives in Rome by train, bringing his new bride Wanda (Brunella Bovo) to the capital city for their honeymoon and to meet Ivan's uncle (Ugo Attanasio), who occupies an important, if undisclosed, position at the Vatican and has arranged for an audience with the Pope (alongside 200 other couples). Ivan is neurotic, lacking in any trace of suavity, and tediously meticulous—not to mention somewhat cheap. Trieste (a writer who had no acting experience and had to be cajoled by Fellini into taking the role) adeptly plays him as a man beset upon by circumstances—none of which he seems capable of enduring intact. Ivan has planned every moment of the honeymoon, down to the minute, including meeting his distinguished relatives, a breakneck tour of the Roman sights, the interview with the Pope, a dinner in the evening, and even the consummation of the marriage: each is assigned its proper hour with not a minute left over to chance.

Leopoldo Trieste as Ivan Cavalli (courtesy of Film Forum)

Wanda is withdrawn and distracted. She meanders about any space in which she finds herself in a state of constant, mild befuddlement. She stares blankly at the porter who takes them from the train station to the hotel; peers uncomprehendingly at the hotel clerk who tries to sell her new husband postcards; blankly follows the bellhop up to the room without her husband, not hearing the distraught Ivan's entreaties that she come to the lobby phone to speak with his uncle.

While the bellhop shows her around the room, Wanda looks bemusedly out the window onto the Roman cityscape. She asks where a particular street is, the Via XXIV Maggio, and becomes wide-eyed with muted rapture when she learns it is very near. She awaits the moment when her husband takes a brief nap, and she absconds from the hotel room, heading to the Via XXIV Maggio.

Apparently, the Via XXIV Maggio passes by the headquarters for a fotoromanzo that Wanda habitually and voraciously reads. Fotoromanzi (literally, "photonovels") are similar to comic books but replace the drawings with still photographs of actors in costume and on stage sets performing the roles of the characters in the story. These "static films" generally present narratives coupling adventure and romance, featuring impoverished but decisive and clever heroines alongside dashing if mercurial heroes.

Fotoromanzi were particularly popular with young women in Italy following World War 2. Wanda buys the latest issue of her favorite fotoromanzo, written by the author Marilena Alba Vellardi (Fanny Marchiò), every Saturday, runs home, locks herself in her room and reads all night. That, she declares to Vellardi in a trance-like ecstasy, is when her "real life begins." Vellardi echoes her sentiments, intoning "Real life is the life of dreams."

Wanda's favorite storylines involve the "White Sheik". Wanda has written letters to the actor portraying the White Sheik, Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), and even received one in return stating that since she would be in Rome they could spend "some unforgettable hours" together. Wanda drew a portrait of Rivoli as the Sheik and has brought it as a gift for him. Vellardi, charmed by Wanda's guileless fascination with the petty romances she authors, promises to arrange a meeting between Wanda and Rivoli.

The meeting quickly becomes more than Wanda could possibly have anticipated. Although she is utterly conscious of the fact that her husband will inevitably discover her absence, Wanda allows herself to be swept away by the inexorable if improbable tide of circumstance that carries her from the offices at Via XXIV Maggio to a remote shooting location where the latest issue is being photographed. Wanda encounters Rivoli who, at first, appears to be just as raffish and charming as he is in the fotoromanzi. She even gets to play the role of the woman he loves in the photoshoot.

After the shoot, Rivoli steals away with her on a boat he doesn't really know how to operate, lies to her about his marriage (claiming he was stolen from the woman he loved by a sorceress through a magic potion), and attempts to seduce her. Wanda ingenuously swallows it all whole. Fortunately for her, Rivoli's incompetence as a sailor vouchsafes her innocence—he gets clobbered by the mainsail and limps his way toward shore.

Meanwhile, poor Ivan frantically searches for his missing bride. He gets harassed by his fellow hotel guests because Wanda left the water running for the bath she employed as a ruse for her escape; it overflowed into neighboring rooms and down the stairs. Ivan awakes to anger and confusion. The hotel clerk is entirely unsympathetic to his plight.

Brunella Bovo as Wanda and Alberto Sordi as Fernando Rivoli (courtesy of Film Forum)

Ivan makes his way to Via XXIV Maggio, not knowing what could have attracted his wife to such a nondescript street. He nearly gets run over by the swiftest moving marching band imaginable. He is forced to come up with an endless string of excuses to his uncle to explain away the continuing absence of his bride, while thwarting the attempts of his aunt and a cousin to break into their hotel room. In a hilarious scene combining the carnivalesque and Kafka, he goes to the police to report his wife missing but they take him for a lunatic and endeavor to detain him.

Here we have the perfect early Fellini schematism: husband and wife, reality and illusion, planning and dreaming, responsibility and flight of fancy. And yet, Fellini's point is not to glorify one and denigrate the other. In this film, unlike his later films that tilt the balance in favor of fantasy, Fellini strives to demonstrate that one cannot simply vanish into the marvelous but neither can one measure out each moment of life according to the lineaments of a rigorous and rational plan in the manner of J. Alfred Prufrock or Ivan Cavalli.

This being a comedy, husband and wife are eventually reunited. The cynical will imagine their reunion to be temporary and unsatisfying. But Fellini doesn't really invite cynicism; he inspires wonder and a kind of placating bemusement. One might more ingenuously imagine that Wanda will learn to see her new husband as a kind of mundane yet still alluring White Sheik and that Ivan will learn to be worthy of the role.


The Film Forum in New York City is showing The White Sheik, Fellini's first film as the sole director, from 25 December through 7 January. It is a wonderful film and worth repeated viewings, and ideal start to a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the director's birth.

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