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The Criterion Collection presents
The White Shiek (Lo Sceicco bianco) (1951)

"I feel like crying, and yet I'm so happy. Or perhaps crazy. Crazy and happy."
- Wanda (Brunella Bovo)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 08, 2004

Stars: Alberto Sordi, Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Giulietta Masina, Ernesto Almirante, Lila Landi, Fanny Marchio
Director: Federico Fellini

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:26m:27s
Release Date: April 29, 2003
UPC: 037429175927
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+BB C+

DVD Review

It's always kind of thrilling to look at the early works of the masters; it's hard not to look at them tendentiously, and see the embryonic elements of the mature style, or to dismiss them as juvenilia, as not as accomplished as what came after. But if you can put all that aside—and you should—what you'll find here is a terrific and funny little film, the first full-length feature directed by some guy named Federico Fellini. This isn't 8 1/2—even few of Fellini's own movies are as good as that—but it's still a smartly made movie by a young man obviously brimming with talent.

The setup is as old as the hills: a young couple from the country is honeymooning in the big city, and bad things interfere with their connubial bliss. Ivan couldn't be more excited—not about the wedding night, but about showing off his blushing new bride, Wanda, to the relatives in Rome. Alas for Ivan, Wanda has other ideas: she's been sending fan letters to Fernando Rivoli, a matinee idol of sorts. He plays the title character in a series of photographic comic books called The White Sheik, and has suggested to his young admirer that they meet for an intimate rendezvous. So the virginal young thing trots off, right into the mouth of the wolf—will her virtue be corrupted by the rapacious star? Will Ivan be cuckolded, embarrassed in front of his family, who have arranged for the newlyweds to meet with the Pope, no less?

It's the stuff of classic comedy, and the movie is steeped in the tradition of commedia dell'arte; it takes stock figures and reinvests them with new vitality. The actors are marvelous and natural—Leopoldo Trieste, with his eyes popping out of his head, as Ivan, is like a Calabrian Franklin Pangborn, and Brunella Bovo as Wanda has just the right mixture of purity and mischief. Times have changed, and by our standards, Alberto Sordi makes for rather a fleshy, pudgy White Sheik; still, his eyes glisten with the lure of corruption, and Wanda may just be enough of an innocent to be ensnared in his trap.

The movie runs briskly, and clocks in at less than ninety minutes; and without falling into the trap that I set for myself in the first paragraph of this review, you can already see Fellini's fascination with the construction of fantasy, with his pleasure in showing us how the illusions are put together, and yet being as taken with the illusions himself as Wanda is by the tales of her Sheik. You can see the many influences on Fellini, and also can sense him finding his own voice; the film is like an odd shotgun marriage of Neorealism and screwball comedy.

The comic vision prevails, of course, and in many ways this is a very old-fashioned picture; as in Shakespearean comedies, marriage is affirmed, and all's well that ends well. (Instead of being presided over by a king or a duke, all is made right by the Pope. This is Rome, after all.) And no discussion of this film would be complete without mention of Signora Fellini, for Giuletta Masina makes a brief appearance, consoling a distraught Ivan, as Cabiria, the good-hearted hooker whom she would play in a starring role, five years later, in Nights of Cabiria. Ciao bella Giuletta!

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The picture quality is a little jumpy and unstable, but for a film of this period, it looks pretty fair. And it's always a bonus when you get to shoot your exteriors in Rome, which of course looks spectacular.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: It's a nice, clean soundtrack, and the work of longtime Fellini collaborator Nino Rota sounds particularly lovely. There's limited range, but that's what you'd expect from a mono track of this period.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet, with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, and an excerpt on the film from Fellini's autobiography
Extras Review: Remembrances (31m:16s) features interview footage recorded in November 2002 with the film's two lead actors, Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo, and with Moraldo Rossi, Fellini's assistant director and biographer. They all remember the shoot and their director fondly; Trieste is especially entertaining describing his first meeting with Fellini, and his misguided quest for graduate degrees, operating under the delusion that chicks dig that. Rossi is helpful discussing the comics, too, telling us that things like The White Sheik (the comic book) were "more pervasive than Neorealism."

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

This debut feature by Federico Fellini is sure to be a welcome discovery for those more familiar with his mature work—it's a silly, delightful piffle of a movie.


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