Monday, June 14, 2010

Underrated Movie #76: The White Sheik

Title: The White Sheik
Year: 1952
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano. Story by Fellini, Pinelli and Michaelangelo Antonioni (!)
Stars: Alberto Sordi, Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Giuletta Masina

The Story: A young couple from the sticks comes into Rome for their honeymoon. The husband has everything planned to the second, culminating in a meeting with the Pope, but his shy young wife disappears at the first chance she gets—it turns out that she is secretly in love with the title character, who is the hero of her favorite comic book.

How it Came to be Underrated: Fellini is beloved for his oddly uplifting movies about existential ennui, but this, his first movie as a solo director, was one of his few straight-up comedies, causing American critics to mostly ignore it. That’s a shame, since it’s a masterful and touching farce. Woody Allen named it as his favorite comedy of all time!

Why It’s Great:
  1. Windy beaches, a journey from stifling mundanity into a carnival atmosphere, cheating husbands, unfulfilled wives, the transformative power of Rome... We get to see Fellini discovering all of his future obsessions one by one!
  2. We don’t see the courtship, or the wedding, so we only have the time it takes the young couple to check into their hotel to see everything that’s wrong with the overbearing husband and everything that’s troubling his new wife. These are such rich performances that they don’t need “character scenes”. By trusting his actors, Fellini is able to put us into the plot as close to the moment of crisis as possible. If the characters are well-enough defined, then any situation will let us know everything.
  3. Even after seeing the movie many American audiences who don’t know what a fumetti is get confused and assume the wife visited a movie set. Actually, a fumetti is a special kind of Italian comic book that laid word balloons on top of photos of actors in exotic costumes. Seems like a lot of work to avoid hiring cartoonists!
  4. It’s a romp, but also very ambitious, in that it manages to be wholly sympathetic to two totally conflicting points of view. We appreciate both the thrill of her liberation and the exquisiteness agony of his suffering, even though one is causing the other. It was this big-hearted munificence that would come to define Fellini’s world-view.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Fellini and Sordi would soon re-team for their big breakthrough movie, I Vitelloni. Fellini also brought back a small character from this movie (played by his wife Giulletta Masina) in her own showcase: Nights of Cabiria.

How Available Is It?: There’s an excellent Criterion Collection DVD with a retrospective featurette.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Fumetti!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

So pleased to see you choose this film, you have unerring sympathies. It has a wonderful score too from Fellini's long term collaborator and all round film music genius Nino Rota, and yes, I Vitelloni is certainly well worth seeking out too, in fact my personal favourite, although that means not much.