The White Sheik is one of Federico Fellini's most overlooked films. When it came out in 1951, The White Sheik was a direct contrast to the Italian Neorealist films that were made at the same time. Where most Neorealist films dealt with the genuine struggles of lower class Italians, The White Sheik was a light comedy about a well-to-do couple involved in a somewhat trivial episode in their lives.
A recently married couple Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste) and Wendy (Brunella Bovo) come to Rome from a small village to take place in a ceremony with the Pope to legitimize their marriage vows. Ivan, a comically serious businessman, has a strict itinerary that they are supposed to follow over the next couple of days, but Wendy, an impulsive, wide-eyed small town woman, has other plans.
While Ivan takes a quick nap, Wendy runs off to see if she can have a chance encounter with her idol: an actor in adult photo comic strips (called fumetti) named Fernando Rivoli aka "The White Sheik," who works in a theatre not far from the hotel. She finds herself on the actor's set but before she knows it she is whisked away to a beach 12 miles outside of Rome with the crew. There she meets the White Sheik (played with a clown-like handsomeness by Alberto Sordi) and before she knows it she has been swept away and dressed for a part in the fumetti photo shoot.
Meanwhile her husband frantically tries to cover her absence with his relatives who are eager to meet her. He takes them around Rome with the hope that she will return to the hotel. In the course of a day they both go through personal struggles that will either make or break their marriage.
Cloaked under the laughs are bigger themes of familial and cultural obligations and infidelity. Wendy learns that her naïve, star-struck notions are mere whimsy, while Ivan doesn't learn much except that his life will be ruined if he is unable to get his wife back.
The film is hardly groundbreaking. As far as Fellini's career is concerned, The White Sheik has neither the wild, surreal beauty nor the self-reflexive flourishes that marked his later, more popular, work. Nonetheless, it is a delightful comedy that demonstrates Fellini's talent of directing exaggerated actors in madcap scenarios: It also has a brief scene with Giulietta Masina and features a Nino Rota score.
The Criterion Collection DVD presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in beautiful, grainy, black and white. There is also a first-rate 30 minute video short featuring insightful interviews with the two main actors and one of Fellini's biographers. On the inside jacket cover is a fine essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and a brief excerpt from a Fellini biography titled I, Fellini.
Aka Lo Sceicco bianco.