WHITE SHEIK, THE (Sceicco bianco, Lo)

(director/writer: Federico Fellini; screenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni; cinematographer: Arturo Gallea; editor: Rolando Benedetti; music: Nino Rota; cast: Giulietta Massina (Cabiria), Alberto Sordi (Fernando Rivoli), Leopoldo Trieste (Ivan Cavalli), Brunella Bovo (Wanda Cavalli), Ettore Maria Margadonna (Ivan’s Uncle), Enzo Maggio (Hotel Concierge), Gina Mascetti (White Sheik’s Wife Rita), Lilia Landi (Felga), Ernesto Almirante (Director of ‘White Sheik’ Strip), Fanny Marchio (Marilena Vellardi); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Luigi Rovere; Janus Films; 1952-Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)

“Clever lighthearted spoof on movie stars.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first film Federico Fellini (“La Strada”/” I Vitelloni”/”8½”) directed solo (he codirected Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada in 1951) is a pleasing sitcom-like comedy and clever lighthearted spoof on movie stars; it’s written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Fellini. It’s a delightful romp but doesn’t have enough bite, the pacing is awkward and the characters are too one-dimensional for it to be one of Fellini’s better films. The White Sheik is more a commercial that an arthouse film, but initially flopped at the box office and with the critics. Over the years it has grown in favor with both the public and critics, and is now considered by many as one of Fellini’s more enjoyable films.

A young petit-bourgeois couple from the sticks, the conservative Ivan and the romantic dreamer Wanda Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo), arrive for their two-day well-planned out honeymoon in Rome and immediately check-in to a hotel, where the ambitious, compulsive, punctilious, nobody clerk who fancies himself as a poet, plans to introduce his bride to his ‘well-connected with the Vatican’ uncle (Ettore Maria Margadonna) and other family members. Uncle’s arranged for them to be part of a papal audience in the morning. But wifey sneaks out of the hotel on the pretense of taking a bath to visit the headquarters of the popular romantic fumetti magazine (adult comic strips using photos instead of drawings), where she has an invitation from the White Sheik to visit anytime after she wrote him fan letters signed Passionate Dolly. Wanda’s overwhelmed when she finds she’s invited to meet on location of a film shoot her idol, Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), who plays the attractive White Sheik in the magazine stories she’s so ga-ga eyed over. The shoot is in the outskirts of Rome, at a Mediterranean beach, and when she realizes she can’t get back in time, she takes solace that she’s at last to meet the White Sheik. But he turns out to be a big disappointment, as he’s a sleazy married womanizer who puts some moves on her which she resists. Meanwhile Ivan’s eyes are popping out of his head, thinking his wife has strayed, as he tells his uncle that Wanda is sick and can’t leave her room. Uncle rearranges the papal audience for tomorrow and they instead go on a sightseeing tour of Rome and take in a theater show at night, but Ivan is exhausted after making so many excuses why they can’t meet Wanda. When Wanda’s still not back when he returns, Ivan goes to the police station to report her missing but is so afraid of dishonoring his family’s name he makes the report out missing so many details that the inspector thinks he’s a loony and Ivan has to escape from the stationhouse before meeting with a doctor about to commit him. In the end, after a ridiculously failed suicide attempt by Wanda, the couple are reunited and seem all the better off for their experience as she meets his family and they all attend the papal audience as one big happy family.

Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, appears in a small part as the warm-hearted prostitute Cabiria; Fellini fell in love with her role and later expanded her character to star in “Nights of Cabiria.” The White Sheik was also the inspiration for Gene Wilder’s The World’s Greatest Lover (1977).

The White Sheik Poster