Reviews

The White Sheik (1952)

Stephen Tropiano

The fusion of the real and the imaginary is at the center of Fellini's first and one of his most underrated films, The White Sheik.

The White Sheik

Director: Federico Fellini
Cast: Alberto Sordi, Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Giulietta Masina
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Janus Films
First date: 1952
US DVD Release Date: 2003-04-29

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image