For his first solo effort in the director’s chair, Federico Fellini delivered a satirical comedy in 1952, The White Sheik, spotlighting a number of elements that would come to be identified as “felliniesque” over the course of his decades-long career. Despite some mannered performances and cultural mores that might strike modern audiences as quaint or unsympathetic, the film’s premise feels strangely relevant in a world obsessed with celebrity worship and the lure of subsuming one’s identity in a niche subculture.

The story follows a newlywed couple, Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste), who have just arrived from the countryside for their honeymoon in Rome. Ivan is overbearing and arrogant, fixated on impressing his big city relatives with his pretty young wife in the hopes that he’ll earn some respect and gain entry into Roman high society. Wanda is docile and naive, but she’s got a secret plan to visit the production studios of her favorite pop-culture phenomenon. In 1950s Italy, comic strips known as fumetti were not drawn but photographed, and featured actors and models in costumes on elaborate sets not unlike movie shoots. In possession of a flirty invitation from her favorite heartthrob, Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), Wanda sneaks out of the bath while Ivan naps. She finds her way to the production studios, and ends up being whisked off in a convoy of actors and crew to a photo shoot far from the city. Mistaken for a cast member–and too starstruck to clarify her intentions–she’s soon in full makeup and costume, posing on the set in the arms of Rivoli as the director (Ernesto Almirante) harangues the crew into their positions. In a hilarious reversal of a movie shoot, the actors all freeze and hold their poses as the lights blaze and the massive cameras clack their shutters.

Wanda’s misadventure on the fumetti set plays like a cosplay farce, something that could happen at Comic-Con with a bunch of costumed Trekkies encountering Captain Kirk. The zaniness of the premise is accessible to modern audiences, hinging on Wanda’s wide-eyed innocence. Less accessible is Ivan’s dilemma, as he awakens to find the bathtub overflowing, his bride vanished and his relatives waiting in the lobby downstairs to greet the newlyweds. Ivan’s knee-jerk reaction is to lie and cover up Wanda’s disappearance, an act which quickly becomes tiresome and transparent, both to his skeptical uncle (Ugo Attanasio) and to the viewer. Ivan’s expression becomes a slack mask of panic and humiliation as he stutters one excuse after another for why his wife isn’t joining the family for lunch or for their appointment to meet the Pope at the Vatican. At no point does Ivan seem to worry about Wanda’s safety or well-being; all he can see is the social cost and the threat to the family reputation if it turns out that she’s abandoned him. His bottled-up hysteria is played for melodrama and laughs, but the comedy sours as it reveals the selfishness and superficiality of his concern.

Thankfully, the film toggles between these two storylines, and Wanda’s increasingly bizarre experience with the fumetti crew buoys the tone. The elaborate photo shoot, on a rocky coastline wind-whipped with dust, prefigures settings from later films exploring themes from Fellini’s own childhood in provincial Rimini. In particular, the depiction of the tyrannical director, his harried underlings and the distracted extras suggests a deep reservoir of material to explore about the real-world mechanics of creativity and inspiration. A further hint of future promise arrives in the most touching scene of Ivan’s storyline, when a sweet-natured prostitute, Cabiria (Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s own wife) arrives to console the despairing husband when he collapses in an empty corner of the city, his hope finally extinguished. She treats his self-pity with tenderness before wandering off with a prospective client. Masina would later reprise this same character in the much-acclaimed Nights of Cabiria, and her brief presence here leavens some of the melodrama hanging over Ivan.

Meanwhile, Wanda’s fling with the world of fantasy curdles as the caddishness of Rivoli becomes clear. Like a matinee idol gone off the rails, he turns out to be nothing but a womanizing shark in makeup and nice hair. One can imagine an alternate version of this film where the young husband and wife are treated with greater nuance and depth: the grounded, clear-eyed realist who understands social realities in the modern world, and the starry-eyed dreamer who surrenders to fantastical visions that overtake one’s senses. These characters, not quite fully realized in his first solo effort, stand at the poles of Fellini’s position on the edge of the Neorealist tradition, representing the trademark themes that he would interrogate in each of his subsequent films. Again and again, he would return to the trope of the film-within-a-film, the magic of fantasy intruding on the mundane, the critique of class consciousness and the idealized explorations of Rome’s seedy underbelly, all set to the antic melodies of a circus-like score. The White Sheik, charming but superficial, offers a menu of these themes and tropes that would become the building blocks of Fellini’s decades-long oeuvre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Oeuvre: Fellini: Nights of Cabiria

Giulietta Masina's irrepressible personality in the title role makes the film a timeless m…