Federico Fellini (director)
89 min (length)
06 April 2020 (released)
09 April 2020
This enchanting 1952 rom-com marked Fellini’s debut as a solo director and tells the story of a newlywed young woman who temporarily runs away from her strait-laced groom to meet her idol the ‘White Sheik’ – a poor man’s version of Rudolph Valentino.
When provincial newlyweds Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) arrive in the eternal city of Rome for their honeymoon, the 20-year old bride (actress B. Bovo was in fact only 20 when she starred in the film) seems terrified when her bourgeois husband reveals all his plans for the following day. With clockwork precision every aspect regarding meeting his equally strait-laced relatives is planned in military detail, culminating in a visit to the Pope. Only Wanda’s mind drifts off for she knows that at a nearby Plaza her idol Fernando Rivoli, better known as the ‘White Sheik’ thanks to his famous role in a cheesy soap opera photo-strip, is filming his next adventure. Having written to him three times already, Wanda has received a reply and an invitation to meet her idol… and prepared a particularly flattering drawing of him. Now she only needs to get out of the hotel room without hubby stopping her from meeting Fernando. Under the pretence of taking a hot bath (while Ivan prefers a little nap in the hotel bed) she sneaks out to the bathroom situated in the corridor and pretends to fill the bathtub before escaping amidst the streets of Rome…
A short time later, after a polite conversation with the lady in charge of publicity, Wanda is allowed her first glimpse of Fernando Rivoli though his female co-star Felga (Lilia Landi) penetrates the innocent and timid Wanda with poisonous looks. Flattered by the attention of his fan and even more flattered when Wanda shows him her drawing of him, Fernando invites her along to the location of the next set (much to the chagrin of Felda), in fact he ups the ante by offering her a tiny part! The ensuing chaos is pure Fellini, with actors quarrelling, director and camera-crew arguing and the utterly inexperienced Wanda smiling when she is supposed to look frightened. During a break, Fernando invites the smitten Wanda to a little boating trip where he tries it on with her, pretending to be the lady killer of the photo strip. When Wanda shies away he gets initially angry though after her revelation that she is freshly married he casually remarks that he is in fact also a married man… telling her porkies about his loveless marriage and how he lost his real true love due to the dastardly jealousy of his cruel wife. When Fernando and Wanda return from their boating trip it’s not just director and crew who are livid because he took off in the boat without asking, thus ruining the day’s shooting schedule… and is promptly sacked. Fernando’s not overtly attractive wife Aida (Gina Mascetti) has also arrived on set and immediately starts whacking poor Wanda with her handbag. Fernando is then revealed as what he really is: a chubby, middle-aged coward, completely under the thumb of his wife and a million miles away from a true screen idol such as Rudolph Valentino! In fact, a real wash-out!
Meanwhile, Ivan is up to his arms upon realising the hotel bathroom next to his ‘honeymoon suite’ is flooded to the extent that water has spilled out into the corridor… with no Wanda in sight anywhere. When the hotel porter hints that Wanda had left the hotel hours earlier Ivan is forced to think up some plausible excuses as to why his new bride won’t be able to come along and meet his relatives, leading to some hilarious scenes. Later that evening, upon having found the flirtatious letter which Fernando sent to Wanda inviting her onto the film set, a distressed Ivan rests beside a fountain when he is approached by two friendly prostitutes, one of which is called Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) who tries to comfort him with well-meant advice and her own philosophies. After this advice, Ivan goes off with Cabirias’ friend. Of course, several years later Masina would return to her role as prostitute Cabiria in Fellinis’ drama NIGHTS OF CABIRIA.
After the debacle on the film set, Wanda runs off on her own – much to the dismay of the director who wants her in the film. Some time later she is found more or less hiding in the bushes by one of the film’s technicians who offer her a lift back to Rome.
Eventually she returns to the hotel room with a fuming Ivan returning a short time later though now is not the time for an almighty quarrel: Ivan’s relatives are waiting to meet the couple at a Plaza so they can proceed with visiting the Pope. On the way, Ivan is still visibly angry with Wanda but changes his tune when she re-assures him that nothing happened between her and Fernando Rivoli… and that it is Ivan who is her real hero and thus her White Sheik.
Fellini intended this movie as a biting satire which targeted the cheesy ‘fotoromanzi’ comic strips so popular in Italy during that time. The performances are near flawless, with Sordi and Trieste in particular as two men at the opposite poles of moral values and attitudes. Plaudits must also go to young Brunella Bovo as a newlywed and timid wife led astray by her infatuation for a soap opera star.
Once again, Nina Rota was responsible for the music while cinematographer Artura Gallea captured every scene perfectly.
To commemorate Federico Fellinis’ centenary, Studiocanal has released THE WHITE SHEIK in a new 4K restoration and in Blu-ray format.