The White Sheik (Federico Fellini / Italy, 1952):
(Lo Sceicco Bianco)

Michelangelo Antonioni expanded this Roman caprice into La Signora Senza Camelie the following year, Federico Fellini here views the heroine’s trajectory (mouse to harem girl and back) as warm Flaubertian satire. The provincial newlyweds arrive at "the altar of the nation," the husband (Leopoldo Trieste) has a full day planned ahead (greeting relatives, going to the opera, meeting the Pope), all the wife (Brunella Bovo) wants is to see the White Sheik of her beloved foto-romanzi. She sneaks out and finds herself on location for a magazine shoot with the gypsies and Bedouins she’s read about. The eponymous lothario (Alberto Sordi) is given an enchanted-ludicrous entrance, airborne on a swing between trees, resplendent in flowing robes; he charms the starstruck ingénue into taking her place with the players, she’s garbed as a kidnapped princess but is too happy to look scared for the camera. Back in the city, Trieste goes through an entire encyclopedia of saucer-eyed squirming to keep his family from learning of the bride’s absence. (In the opera house, Don Giovanni’s arias speak directly to his fears of cuckoldry). At the center is Fellini’s fond sketch of a filming crew at lunchtime, with Arabian Nights troupers dancing lazily by the beach. When somebody says that "real life is the life of dreams," it's less a lyrical declaration than a warning -- the Sheik is revealed as a henpecked butcher’s boy playacting at being Valentino (the truth "would ruin the romance of it"), even the "bottomless pit" the distraught heroine hurls herself into is just a shallow puddle. The bereft husband is consoled in by happy-go-lucky Cabiria (Giulietta Masina), his reunion with Bovo is a hilarious symphony of groans and sobs. Tashlin picked up on the skewering of fumetti fantasylands (Artists and Models), though it was Fellini’s own stroke of genius to have the couple’s portrayal of matrimonial harmony at the very end be the biggest illusion of all. Music by Nino Rota. With Lilia Landi, Ernesto Almirante, Fanny Marchio, and Ugo Attanasio. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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