Thursday, January 14, 2021

The White Sheik

Presenting Wolfango A. Mozart

// The vulgarity of cinema! Cinema, comprehensive art! Il cinema, l'art du peuple?? — Che cosa! //

Federico Fellini's movies fold together like cake mix the crust of the poltroons and the bronzer of the snobs. The White Sheik [Lo sceicco bianco, 1952], Federico's first solo feature (with a double-entendre easier to locate in 2021 than in 1952 perhaps) traffics in the emotional undercurrents of these modern media insofar as their receptive connections with a largely female-targeted demographic go: theirs not being only the romantic movies and a conditioned-plethora-else but the monthly periodicals too that went known as i fotoromanzi — photo-novels, or photo-romances... These publications split the difference between movies (or rather movie-novelizations) and comic books; they gradually travestied both artforms while exuding a certain appeal of their own. In the same stretch of time that I was rewatching The White Sheik in the Criterion Essential Fellini box (twice in the last week), I also happened to be reading Luc Sante's new and truly outstanding 2020 collection Maybe the People Would Be the Times; literally having chronologically landed by chance, during reading, on his essay dedicated to the fotoromanzi. I'm going to quote a few passages here which won't abuse fair use. The originary essay, "Fotonovela," first appeared in the Paris Review Daily in 2019:

"Fotonovela, fumetti, roman-photo — the terms betray the face that the form never got much traction in the Anglo-Saxon realm. There is no word for it in English, exactly. You could say 'photo-comics,' but risk being misunderstood when you are referring to narratives, often but not always romantic, that are conveyed by means of photographs arrayed in panels on a page, with running text often in talk balloons. Their impact has been almost entirely restricted to countries that speak Spanish, Italian, or French; their readership is overwhelmingly female, at least in Europe."

This might be the point where one interrupts to cite probably the most famous example of the photo-roman in the world, Chris Marker's La Jetée, which will soon find its way onto this blog as my Marker coverage continues... Of note to track down too, via a citation from Luc in the same essay, is: "La Folle d'Itteville, the collaborative photo-novel by Germaine Krull and Georges Simenon, from 1931."

In section "II" of his book Luc Sante investigates the perils (travails might be the more accommodating term) of early matrimony. This slice in personal history appealed to Fellini throughout his filmography, we see it over and over again. Such great material for the young newlywed reader to adhere to the stock reconfigurations of the fotoromanzo's plots — the Hallmark movie-medium of their time, except not as bad and (somehow) less cynically produced? It was Michelangelo Antonioni who wrote the original 24-page treatment for Lo sceicco bianco, although his version involved a man going to Rome with big hopes of starring outright in a fotoromanzo, a power-up of the photo-romance's coaxing toward real-world aspiration. The resulting film saw Fellini and Pinelli, with assistance from Flaiano, mixing the material around such that the young wife (Wanda, Brunella Bovo) heads off to find the protagonist of her waking dreams (Fernando, Alberto Sordi) as the husband (Ivan, Leopoldo Trieste) embarks on desperate pursuit of her trail.

I'll stop for a moment, because my notes are scattershot, due in all likelihood to my feelings about The White Sheik as a whole. I want to pause to say that Nino Rota's main theme prefigures that of Fellini's 8-1/2 eleven years later on which he did some of his most brilliant composition. With Rota, it was always reused themes if not outright 'variations.' (You can detect this in at least three or four of his Godfather themes for Coppola.)


The couple arrived from Viterbo on the express train. The first word spoken by Ivan in the movie: "Rom'..." — he's of a certain accent, maybe of a specific dialect too. He's immediately established in The White Sheik as a neurotic. His (relative) wealth is suggested when he forgoes the opportunity by the front desk hotel clerk to use a postcard for writing his family, in order to engage the telephone instead, — expediency's sake in 1952 seemed ostentatious to everyone with a chip on their shoulder about class — and everyone a rung or more below Signore X-Rung(s)-Up carried that chip. ...Ivan needs to announce his arrival to his well-off Roman relatives. (Uncle is "an important figure at the Vatican... If he snaps his fingers in Rome, all of Altovilla Marittima jumps...")

Wanda wants a bath, it gets Ivan off her back to slip down ten minutes away to the fotoromanzo office: fatal mistake: Wanda leaves the tub of water running. There she meets the publisher/sceneggiaturista Mariela who emphasizes, in her art-bedecked, marble-hewn classic Roman office setting (these books don't do bad, and neither does family capital): "Real life is the life of dreams."

From here the narrative splits, alternating between Ivan and Wanda as the latter goes off in the company of the fotoromanzo crew 26km outside of Rome, including Fernando the White Sheik himself. — (While Wanda kicks her heels around beforehand inside the Rome office, a strange grace note of business finds one of the extra actors in close-up sniffing and looking above, as though prescient of the bathwater overflowing in the next scene at the hotel....?) Around the same time of which Ivan finds floating on the floor the letter from Fernando the White Sheik to Wanda saying stop by if you're ever in Rome...

The greater portion of the second half is devoted to the question: How will Ivan and Wanda get back together, which outcome is a foregone conclusion — one amusing love night aside on Ivan's part with an encounter with a couple of mommy'ing prostitutes, one of whom (Giulietta Masina) is "Cabiria."



Other writings about Federico Fellini on Cinemasparagus:


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