I wonder what audiences thought to themselves after the initial release of The White Sheik. Perhaps they thought this “Fellini” guy would fizzle out and make a handful of comedy films here and there. His first solo directing venture, The White Sheik marks Fellini’s early foray into the genre of comedy. The Italian director held in critical acclaim for his observant commentaries showcased in La Dolce Vita and La Strada kickstarted his career with a harmless comedy where a newly engaged Wanda Giardino Cavalli (Brunella Bovo) finds herself swept away with an adored film actor.
From the Fellini we (hopefully) all know and adore; this feels like a completely different director. This solo debut feels rather contained and lacks the experimentation and commentary of his future works. Certainly not a bad thing, as it’s always interesting to see where an acclaimed director got their start, it’s just rather odd to see that Fellini began in the humble origins of making a romantic comedy. I suppose romance has always been a common theme of his, but throughout The White Sheik, you can see why the comedy portion of these antics began to slip away. It’s certainly not the worst comedy out there, but the jokes, even for their time, are pretty crummy. Thankfully there are a few jokes that land rather well, but most of them are contained within the first half-hour.
If anything, The White Sheik feels disconnected with its spectator, seeped in influence from the great epics of the time, yet running at half the length. The use of parts to break up the narrative feels a little futile given that we’re only sticking around for ninety minutes. Frequent Fellini collaborator Giulietta Masina makes a brief appearance toward the end of the film, the future intertextuality provided by Nights of Cabiria making this cameo-like introduction a resoundingly nice moment. I’d watched Nights of Cabiria the day before, and seeing Masina crop up in The White Sheik was a pleasant surprise, especially with her playing that titular character once more.
As far as the main cast go, you’ve got your standard set of actors that never really left much of a cultural footprint. Forgettable faces that provide serviceable work, no disrespect intended on their behalf – cinema is full of these faces. Their performances feel brazenly over the top, specifically that of Leopoldo Trieste, who plays Ivan Cavalli. His newfound lifestyle as a man engaged to be married is one that doesn’t receive the necessary build-up. He’s nothing short of detestable, and considering we spend so much time with him, it’s strange that it’s a real struggle to connect with him. Perhaps this disconnect is intentional, and as we prise our way into the viewpoint of Giardino Cavalli, we learn that the men that seek her hand are the most despicable of all. That would at least explain the performance of Alberto Sordi too, who plays Fernando Rivoli, the actor Cavalli has fallen for. Sordi has the same issues as Trieste, but they work rather well under the guise of his role, an over-the-top, big-screen heartthrob who gets his way no matter how arrogant a request it is.
As expected, the touch up for this remastering is superb. Technicolour have done a marvellous job of making this look as crisp as they possibly can ahead of the new 4K launch. The black and white cinematography a key staple in the work of Fellini, it’s always great to see its visual prowess smartened up in a HD rework.
My colleague Graham compared this rather well to that of Woody Allen’s 1985 film, The Purple Rose of Cairo. The comparisons and similarities are certainly there. It’s funny that I should mention Allen, as he appropriates the story contained within The White Sheik in a later film of his as well, To Rome with Love. Fellini’s impact then does not stop with the likes of Nights of Cabiria and 8 ½, and while The White Sheik is far away from the ground-breaking impression of those aforementioned classics, The White Sheik still contains within it a certain value. It’s not all that funny, but the drama between the leading characters is more than enough to keep the film trundling on through a very amicable viewing experience. And, as I said earlier, there’s a real intrigue in seeing where the titans of cinema made their start.