Wanda (Brunella Bovo) is a young bride who has travelled to Rome with her new husband Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste) to meet his family first, and second to attend an audience with the Pope, which Ivan is very much looking forward to. But as they check into the hotel, Wanda seems distracted, as if there is something else she is there for, something her husband knows nothing about. After arranging it with his uncle to meet up that morning, Ivan tells her to go for a bath as she has suggested, but she doesn't - she sneaks out of the hotel and down the street. For her spouse is not really her first love, her heart belongs to another. And another thing - this man is fictional...
The White Sheik (or Lo sceicco bianco as it was known in its native Italy) was distinguished as the first directorial effort solo from an acknowledged master of the form, Federico Fellini, just as he was finding his feet artistically. On the surface, this was a mere trifle, a frothy concoction destined to be consigned to the ranks of "promising" rather than wholly accomplished, but dig a little deeper and you would see Fellini's obsession with reality versus fantasy that cropped up more than once in his work in its nascent form. Though this was a comedy to all intents and purposes, the heroine's illusions were what powered the story, and eventually resulted in a poignant conclusion.
This film was the inspiration for Woody Allen's eighties fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo, which took the premise of this and adapted it into a far more outlandish plot with equally, a real slap in the face of an ending, while Fellini was keen to have his lead character retain some of her daydreams even as the rest of them were shattered. That said, we are not sure if her tears are those of a woman who has suffered a rude awakening and now must live with the consequences that the romance she so yearned for will either never happen in the real world, or will have to operate as second best as she does what she can with what she has been given. Are we supposed to be glad she realised this?
While not a total tragedy - there were parts blatantly intended to make you laugh at the sympathetic expense of some pretty daft people - should you care to mull over the implications of what has happened to Wanda, Fellini seemed ready to throw a bucket of cold water over her in a manner that was far from alien to some of his later characters. If this was not quite as accomplished as he would become, it was brief and breezy to be surprisingly compelling with a certain quality of wisdom in how it addressed an industry that filmmaking was very much a part of, the selling of fiction to fuel the ambitions and inner lives of their consumers. Should people's dreams be made into commodities, this lightly asked, or is that needlessly cruel? Should the Sheik of the title have been left as a fantasy?
Or is it better to see things as they really are? Will Wanda be able to cope with such a set of cold, hard facts when she would be far happier retreating into her photo romance magazines? That's what she is obsessed with: Italian men are such boors that she would prefer to be in the company of this serial detailing the adventures of that Sheik, who is played by an actor (Alberto Sordi) not as noble as his persona. When she finally meets him, he exaggerates his Rudolph Valentino-style representation to try to sweep her off her feet, but we can tell this is what he has done many times before and is purely going along with Wanda to take advantage of her, probably sexually. It was the tale of fandom the world over: never meet your idols when they are human after all and liable to let you down, hard. That this was presented in a ridiculous, almost parodic fashion sweetened the pill somewhat, but while it was not slick, it was well-crafted enough to land its message. Watch out for Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina as Cabiria, a few years before that character got her own movie. Wistful, cheeky score by Nino Rota.
[This is restored and released on Blu-ray by Studiocanal with two special features:
Fellini's The White Sheik and Other Stories - 16 minute featurette compiled of Interviews with Fellini experts Peter Bondanella and Charlotte Chandler discussing The White Sheik and other Fellini classics
Fellini's Collection at The Lilly Library - A 5 minute featurette showcasing artefacts from the Fellini collection at The Lilly Library, including scripts and sketches
Also released by Studiocanal on Blu-ray is Nights of Cabiria, where the character was given her own movie by Fellini.]