At the 76th Film Festival in Venice we find Federico Fellini in the Classic Section with his first feature film The White Sheik (Lo Sceicco Bianco) that was presented at the Venice Festival in 1952. The movie has been restored by the Bologna Film Archive, within the framework of the “100 Fellini Project” in cooperation with RTI-Mediaset and Infinity Laboratory.
In this film, one can find the intricate themes that belong to Fellini’s bewildered cinematographic conception. There are break-outs of unusual visions but from La Dolce Vita onwards one will find that the recognizable traits of Fellini such as the dream-like visionary realism immersed in disturbing emotions will become a new interpretation in order to “see beyond”. In this edition, the rendezvous with The White Sheik is appropriate since we are not far from the year 2020, the Centenary of Fellini’s birth. He was an unsurpassable screenwriter and co-writer during the neorealist period. After the debut with Lattuada in Luci del Varietà, his magical beginnings as a strike with the film The White Sheik, narrated in an anecdotal style first-hand in the precious essay Making a Film (ed. Einaudi). Fellini steps back in time between ironic confinements and peculiar episodes, interlacing a life story capable of entrapping us in his universe. “One day Pinelli said to me: Why don’t we do a story of a bride that runs away from home just to go to meet her favorite star?” And my quick response “So let’s have her run off while on her honeymoon”. Together we agreed on the visit to the Pope, the menacing relatives, the comical heroism of the abandoned groom that wants to hide this disgrace. The subject falls in the hands of the film-maker Luigi Rovere which said to Fellini “Why don’t you do it?” – “After all, in those few days that you shot Closed Shutters I believe you handled it quite well”.
The couple Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) appear in the film during their honeymoon to Rome. The encounter and the first dialogues of the bride with the unreachable white sheik, whose real name is Ferdinando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), is sealed with the apparition of the myth on a dangling swing. Together they take photographs for a new photo novel while the man tries to seduce her. The figure of the white sheikh summarizes all of Fellini’s passion for caricatures. Wanda and her husband, as the critic Oreste del Buono says: “represent a couple of an ideal bleakness and an irresistible lameness”. An invitation to the cinema by Fellini (Roberto C. Provenzano, ed. Mursia, 1995). The brutal confrontation of the woman with the wife of the myth will be dramatic and after a series of circumstances, the bride – a true daydreamer – will project the new sheikh in her husband. In this film appears Alberto Sordi who will become a great Italian actor. Wanda is the prototype of Fellini’s first woman contrasting in the film with another feminine figure, the prostitute Cabiria, interpreted by Giuletta Masina. The latter – defined as being of Chaplin’s style – has given birth to memorable creatures such as Gelsomina in La Strada, Cabiria in The Nights of Cabiria and Giulietta in Juliet of the Spirits. Gelsomina is a clown-like angel, a kind of acrobat wrapped up in colourful rags, her airiness – of Chagall style – will emotionally tie her to a looney gymnast. The latter makes her aware that she belongs to a mysterious divine plan. Gelsomina’s mission is to live with the beastly Zampanò, who in a brutal act kills the loony gymnast. This homicide is the death of that innocence and Gelsomina plunges into an irreparable solitude. It is within this miserable circus context that Fellini reaches the greatest heights of his poetry. His neorealist matrix mixing with fantasy expressions, have opened the door towards a new type of cinema. “Fellini draws opposite destinies for the two male characters, who are holding their hands, thanks to Giulietta Masina’s talent.” (I Sogni del Cinema Italiano: Tra Registi e Dive, by Paola Olivieri Alfinito, ed. Helicon). After La Strada, Fellini grasps the Cabiria character back again and with Giulietta Masina he shoots the film The Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria). Drawing from this actress the liveliness and spontaneity of acting, he gives birth to a dreamer. The character stems from a minor entity created for Anna Magnani – that the actress didn’t like – and from an encounter that the director had with a desperate woman that lived in a shack. The woman received an eviction order and as the Maestro reminds us: “She thought that I was from the Mayor’s office arriving from afar in order to destroy everything”. (Fare un Film, by Federico Fellini, ed. Einaudi). A bit at a time the film comes into being: Masina, thanks to her spontaneity and descriptive flair, gives life to this character who believes in dreams and risks dying in chasing after him. She will collapse into an absolute state of fatigue when she comes to terms with Oscar’s cheating. But Fellini, in the final scene of the film, shows us Cabiria looking at the audience and staring into the camera, that embraces the future with a new vision, becoming a messenger of life.
© FIPRESCI 2019
Edited by Rita Di Santo