1950s, 3/4, Comedy, Fellini, Review

The White Sheik

The White Sheik (1952) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

#16 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.

This is the light, comic, and Italian version of Eyes Wide Shut, a movie about dreams that ends with a husband and wife waking up and facing each other in the wake of what they learned about themselves. Writing out that comparison makes it sound like Federico Fellini’s second feature, and his first solo directing credit, is a heavy slog, but it really is a light and fun little movie that wears its comic sensibilities on its sleeve. The dual journeys are comic misadventures.

The one major thing I think this movie is missing is a true opening scene. The movie begins with the newly married couple, Ivan and Wanda, getting off their train in Rome, but I feel like it should have started in their little Italian town right before they left their house. Wanda could have hidden her little magazine collection of photographed stories that she’s obsessed with, providing the audience a clear view in what she’s obsessed with that drives her to run away the first chance she gets when her husband falls asleep in their hotel. The type of storytelling she’s infatuated with (another type of odd, idiosyncratic medium like the avantspettacoli in Variety Lights) is rather unique and never gets a good showing in this film. Just seeing a single sheet of the staged images around the titular White Sheik’s adventures could have provided a grounding to the first act that’s currently missing.

That lack of grounding means that the first act feels a little unclear, but once through it, the movie is unambiguous and works fine. So, that first act sees the pair take up residence in their small hotel room where Ivan reveals himself to be a control-freak. He’s planned every minute of their trip in Rome including a visit with the Pope, arranged by Ivan’s uncle, an official in the Vatican. He’s excited about showing off his pretty wife to his family, less so about spending any time with his new bride. She, in contrast, is using their trip to Rome to try and visit Fernando Rivoli, the actor who plays the White Sheik. She travels to the photo-play’s production office a few minutes from the hotel and gets swept up into the production itself, riding a truck out of town to a shooting location where she meets Rivoli, swinging from a tree.

The thing about the two stories that we end up following, Wanda descending into the fantasy of The White Sheik and Ivan’s nightmare as he tries to explain away his wife’s absence to his family, eager to meet the young woman, is that they are mirror images of dreams of each. Wanda goes off to find her dream lover, The White Sheik, and she gets swept up into the dream-like production of her favorite story in her favorite medium. But, the fantasy is really just that, a fantasy. Fernando Rivoli isn’t some dashing hero, he’s a former butcher’s boy with a wife. The adventures aren’t real and exciting, they are manufactured and tame. By contrast, Ivan’s fantasy is that he has complete control over life and his wife, and the second they get to Rome he loses her completely. He is frantic and desperate to hide his fear from his family, constantly calling back to the hotel to see if they have seen her since she left. He even goes to the police to beg for their help without using his own name, out of fear of the scandal it could cause him and his family. She gains everything she could dream of, and he loses everything.

There are two low points for the main characters. Wanda runs off from the production out in the middle of nowhere when Fernando Rivoli’s wife appears and breaks up the fantasy. She hitches a ride back into town, can’t bear to return to her husband, and decides to kill herself. Now, that kind of decision is usually not met with a comedic sneer from a filmmaker, but I find it hard to believe that Fellini saw the moment of great decision on Wanda’s part as anything other than a satirical moment. The music by Nino Rotta swells, but her fall from the embankment along the Tiber into a shallow place of mud solidifies the feeling that her entire bout of despair was supposed to be darkly comic rather than deeply emotional. Ivan experiences a similar down moment when he sits at a public fountain in the middle of the night and gets visited by two prostitutes (including Cabiria, played by Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife who would return to the role in Nights of Cabiria a few years later) who give him solace and assure him that not all women are like Wanda, who run off to meet some lover on her own honeymoon. It’s a sad moment for the character, but the fact that he’s being comforted on his wife’s supposed infidelity by two prostitutes is just too darkly comic to be taken seriously, and that’s pretty obviously the point.

The two reunite when Wanda gets taken to a hospital after falling into the Tiber and the hospital calls Ivan at his hotel (a moment before he’s going to reveal to his family that he lost his wife). Together, the next morning after their long day apart (where Ivan told his family that Wanda was asleep, furthering the idea of dreams), they’re both rather shellshocked at what they lived through. It was here, as the two can barely look at each other while Wanda gets introduced to Ivan’s family outside St. Peters Basilica, that I recalled Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the end of Eyes Wide Shut. There’s a very similar feeling of self-reflection as the two sets of dreams end and the real world seeps back into their lives. Ivan has to realize how easily he could lose Wanda if he loses sight of her, like he did the day before, and Wanda has to realize that love isn’t like the fake romances she reads. Reality is somewhere in between.

The movie is sweet and charming with a deeply satirical bent. I do wish it had a true opening scene to help better set the stage, but it’s a surprisingly intelligent little film with nice performances and an enjoyable sense of humor.

Rating: 3/4

3 thoughts on “The White Sheik”

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