Sunday, 24 February 2013

The White Sheik [Lo sceicco bianco] (Italy, 1952); Dir. Federico Fellini


Had it been made later in his career one surmises that Fellini's The White Sheik might have more closely resembled the picture it partially inspired: Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo (1984). Both films share a common theme of an unassuming woman being fleetingly transported into a fantasy world of romance and adventure before an inevitable withdrawal back to reality.

As it is this is a fairly restrained directorial debut from the Maestro, albeit with plenty of hints of what was to come. The story centres around newlywed couple Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste), who have arrived at a hotel in Rome for their honeymoon. Whilst the punctilious, petit-bourgois Ivan enthuses about their packed itinerary and meeting with his relatives, Wanda is more concerned with the opportunity to meet try and the star of her favourite Arabian Nights-inspired fumetti* - the eponymous 'White Sheik' - and promptly absconds in pursuit of her idol.

No sooner has Wanda arrived at the serial's production office and explained her desire to meet the Sheik (she's even drawn a picture of him) than she's whisked off to take part in filming his next adventure. Meanwhile a frantic Ivan attempts to discover what's become of his wife whilst trying to conceal the facts from his relatives, who are are anxious to meet her. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Ivan's uncle has arranged for them to meet the Pope and have their marriage blessed the following day.

Taken to a beach where scenes for the photo-story are being shot, Wanda is introduced to the whirling, carnivalesque world of a production, where fantasy and reality grow increasingly blurred; it's unmistakably Fellini territory, if not yet with the polish of Otto e Mezzo. But her enchantment with the Sheik becomes all the more baffling when we finally meet him. Portrayed by Alberto Sordi , who would go on to become Italy's most popular comedy actor, he's not so much a second rate Rudy Valentino as bargain basement; his podgy features being a far cry from most people's idea of a romantic hero. And yet the Sheik appears beguiled by Wanda and - as she falls deeper into the illusion's seduction - the pair set off to sea together in a tiny sail boat, much to the dismay of the crew.

Disillusion arrives abruptly when they return to shore and Wanda is 'introduced' to the Sheik's battleaxe of a wife; it transpires he's more serial philanderer than serial hero and his other half is less than enamored with the young hussy who's caught his eye. As the production wraps and the crew head off a distraught Wanda is left to make her own way home.

In Allen's film - set against a backdrop of Depression-era America - the effect is tragicomic; Mia Farrow's character Cecilia, broken and disappointed, retreats back into the illusion of the cinema to avoid an uncertain future. By contrast Fellini's contemporary film was made during the dawning of the Italian economic miracle; Ivan's relatives are keen to show him all the sights of the renaissant capital and optimism is a striking contrast to that of the Neorealist movement which was already drawing towards a close. Superficially at least the conclusion is an optimistic one, with the reunited Wanda, Ivan and his relatives heading to the Vatican for their meeting with the Pope.

Yet haven't Ivan's frantic attempts to keep up appearances and make the engagement only papered over the cracks? Like Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross at the end of The Graduate there's a caustic irony in their closing glances that suggests the future of the relationship is less than rosy.

*'Fumetti', is the Italian term for comics; it literally means "little puffs of smoke" after the speech balloons commonly used.  Whilst traditional illustrated comics found a readership amongst children, the late forties saw the emergence of magazines featuring which used sequences of still photographs instead. These 'photoromanzi', which typically told epic love stories and were roughly analogous with soap operas, were hugely popular with Italian women right through to the eighties.

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