The buttoned-down, mild-mannered file clerk and amateur poet Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) has brought his new bride, Wanda (Brunella Bovo), to Rome for their honeymoon. Rather than enjoying each other's company alone, however, Ivan has planned the whole trip around visiting with his family, the highlight of which will be an audience with the Pope. Given the sprightliness of Ivan's eyebrows when he mentions their return to the hotel in the evening, it doesn't appear that he intends the whole trip to be taken up with pious gesticulation, but as far as Wanda is concerned, that would be all right, too. She doesn't seem all that thrilled to be a newlywed, and those eyebrows freak her out a little. (I don't blame her. They freak me out, too.)
Wanda also has a secret. When her husband is napping and she is supposed to be bathing, she sneaks out of the hotel to go to the offices of the publisher of her favorite romantic fumetti, the photo comics popularized by the Italians. There she hopes to meet Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who plays the White Sheik, Wanda's favorite character in the comics. She has drawn his portrait, which she plans to drop off and then sneak back to her hotel before Ivan notices she is gone. The Sheik has other plans, though. He gets one of the other actors to load Wanda onto a truck and take her out to that day's photo shoot at the beach. Once he has her trapped there, the low-rent Rudy Valentino tries to seduce her. Meanwhile, poor Ivan is left to try to keep his family from discovering that Wanda isn't really upstairs with a headache.
The White Sheik was film #1 1/2 for Federico Fellini, and his first as a solo director. Released in 1952, it didn't exactly set the world on fire, and though it has had a critical reevaluation since, I still find it to be a mere trifle in the director's early career. This movie seems like a warm-up, with key moments acting as rehearsals for the more realized features to come, including I Vitelloni and Nights of Cabiria.
What Fellini is trying to do here is make a simultaneous homage and satire of early cinema, with the fumetti replacing silent movies. I suppose that choice could be a subtle dig at the state of motion pictures, that their best days are frozen in still images on a page, but The White Sheik doesn't feel that sharp. Wanda is the perpetual dreamer who will discover that her invented paramour is a lout and an oaf, a lesson she will have to learn before she can settle into marriage with Ivan; likewise, Ivan is going to learn that women are not as delicate nor as innocent as he has believed. Consider that Wanda's salvation comes during an amusing suicide attempt, where statues of angels on all sides of her offer redemption (or perhaps the way out) by coyly keeping their backs turned to her. It's okay, they aren't looking! On the other hand, Ivan is rescued by a couple of hookers.
It's that scene with Ivan and the ladies of the evening that truly points out that something is not quite right with The White Sheik. Ivan meets two women, and of them is Fellini's wife and his soon-to-be-regular star, Giulietta Masina. She is playing an early version of her Cabiria character, coming onto screen doing a little dance, mimicking a performance she just saw. In a way, she is no different than Wanda in that her head is in the clouds, her thoughts taken up with fanciful entertainment, and she reacts to Ivan's story like it's a soap opera being played out for her pleasure. She quickly exits again, leaving with a fire eater no less, and the spark she brought in with her goes right out.
Up until Giulietta's arrival, The White Sheik is playing at being a screwball comedy, but it never really finds its pace. Leopoldo Trieste, who with his curly hair and moustache looks like a Gilbert Hernandez cartoon, is running around, mugging for the camera, and playing the hapless husband. He is accompanied by Nino Rota's buoyant music, but the score always seems to be racing around Ivan like an eager puppy rather than adding to the spring in his step. The comedy here is too subdued. If it were a car, it would be pulled over for driving too slow while the rest of the cars speed by. Fellini can never really get it started.
I was actually surprised by how little presence Alberto Sordi had as the Sheik. He gets some great comic moments in I Vitelloni, Fellini's next picture, and pretty much steals that entire movie, but as the swishy lover, he's fairly bland. His best scene comes when the bubble bursts, when he has to defend himself against his angry coworkers and his even angrier wife. There is so much personality on that beach at that moment, Wanda is right to run. Brunella Bovo is barely a shadow amidst the spectacle.
When it comes to The White Sheik, it may be a case of too many cooks. Michelangelo Antonioni originally wrote the script for his own debut but never directed it, and then Fellini and Tullio Pinelli rewrote it, and a fourth writing credit is given to Ennio Flaiano. Then again, it's not uncommon to see that many names on the writers' card in an Italian movie of that era. I'm more inclined to think it's just a case of a neophyte filmmaker still finding his bearings. There is little in the cinematography that distinguishes itself, and the editing is often jumpy. In short, it's a well-meant effort that is just a tad clumsy. Not terrible, possessed of a few chuckles, but ultimately as full of nothing as its title character. The Sheik is all charm and smiles until you get that turban off, and then you find he's nothing special, just an okay actor dressed up to look fancy. He's likable enough when he's around, but you aren't that sorry when he leaves.