The White Sheik-Lo sceicco bianco (1952)
Directed by: Federico Fellini | 85 minutes | drama, comedy, romance | Actors: Alberto Sordi, Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Giulietta Masina, Lilia Landi, Ernesto Almirante, Fanny Marchio, Gina Mascetti, Jole Silvani, Enzo Maggio, Anna Primula, Mimo Billi, Armando Libianchi, Ugo Attanasio, Giulio Moreschi, Elettra Zago, Piero Antonucci, Aroldino, Ettore Maria Margadonna, Antonio Acqua, Lalla Ambraziejus, Silvia De Vietri, Rino Leandri, Guglielmo Leoncini, Carlo Mazzone, Giorgio Salvioni
Tullio Pinelli died in Rome in March 2009 at the age of 100. A great screenwriter has passed away. Although he was actually a lawyer, he had a huge passion for the theater. Pinelli wrote plays in his spare time. In 1947 he met Federico Fellini, reportedly as they were reading a page at a newsstand of the same newspaper. At the time, Fellini was a novice filmmaker who already had experience as a script writer (he was partly responsible for Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Roma, Citta Aperta’ from 1945). Pinelli and Fellini, who was almost twelve years his senior, became friends and would work together frequently. Like that of composer Nino Rota and actress Giulietta Masina, Pinelli’s career also parallels that of Fellini. Their best works include ‘La strada’ (1954), ‘Le notti di Cabiria’ (1957), ‘La dolce vita’ (1960) and ‘Otto e mezzo’ (1963).
One of the first films that Fellini and Pinelli made together was ‘The White Sheik’ (1952). In this they mock stardom. The newlyweds Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste) and Wanda Cavalli (Brunella Bovo) are in Rome to have their marriage consecrated by the Pope. While stiff Ivan has already mapped out their schedule for the next few days, dreamy Wanda has other plans. For years she has been addicted to the photo novels about the White Sheik (Alberto Sordi), a romantic hero based on Rudolph Valentino, and is determined to visit him in Rome. However, the meeting with her prince charming ends in a fiasco. Initially it all seems very exciting, especially when Wanda is cast for a role in the photo novel. But Fernando Rivoli – as the White Sheik is called in real life – turns out to be a particularly bad type. The distraught Ivan, meanwhile, tries desperately to keep up appearances for his flocking family – who have now become curious about Wanda…
‘The White Sheik’ (‘Lo sceicco bianco’) is the first film for which Federico Fellini directed solo. The director was initially very insecure about his approach and had huge doubts about how to shoot certain scenes (for example, the one in which Wanda and Rivoli are sailing on a boat). At a time when neorealism was rampant, Fellini’s work stands out. The focus is not on the poor, working population, but on a wealthy couple who experience seemingly trivial experiences. At times the typical style of the filmmaker can already be found. Fellini’s penchant for chaotic scenes and extravagant outfits, for example, already seeps through in the scenes in which the photo novel is shot. Although he had plucked some of his actors in the neo-realist tradition of the streets – the most striking of whom is our protagonist Leopoldo Trieste – the majority of the cast is made up of professional actors. ‘The White Sheik’ has a bizarre tempo and looks a bit messy. You could describe the film as an Italian version of the American screwball comedy from the thirties and forties (which often also had infidelity as an important theme).
The acting is over the top and the characters quite one-sided, but that is appropriate here. Especially Leopoldo Trieste with his distraught look and bulging eyes is a true discovery. Ivan is never spontaneous and always walks in step. Moreover, he is very concerned about what the outside world thinks of him. Especially for his family, he is constantly on tiptoe. You would think that exaggerated strictness must break him up at some point. Alberto Sordi convinces as the second-rate romantic hero who goes very far with his charm, but in the end burns his buttocks. In a tiny but very sympathetic role we see Fellini’s wife and muse Giulietta Masina. She plays the prostitute Cabiria, a role she would repeat five years later in ‘Le notti di Cabiria’. The black-and-white images of Rome shot by Arturo Gallea are beautiful but lack the magic that we would see in Fellini’s later work. The music – of course by Nino Rota – is very pleasant.
‘The White Sheik’ was not a box office success, much to Fellini’s chagrin. However, it didn’t stop him from making another film and that’s a good thing, because his best years were still ahead of him. In ‘The White Sheik’ it can be seen at times that we are dealing with a great film talent. The surreal beauty and double layers of self-reflection that we know from films like ‘Giulieta degli spiriti’ (1965) is missing, but what remains is an entertaining, chaotic comedy in which Fellini shows how to handle a crazy scenario full of characters that are larger than life. to be. Maybe not Fellini’s best, but certainly one of his most accessible films.