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Fellini's Fancy: Close-Up on "The White Sheik" and "Nights of Cabiria"

Fellini brings cinema to life in two early films, both featuring his wife and muse, Giulietta Masina.
Jeremy Carr
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Federico Fellini's The White Sheik (1952) is showing January 20 - February 19, 2018 and Nights of Cabiria (1957) from January 21 - February 20, 2018 on MUBI in the United States. 
The White Sheik
Even the most straight-faced Federico Fellini film veers toward the illusory. From the lackadaisical daydreams of wayward young men to the ingenuousness of a simple-minded woman wanting nothing more than to be loved in a world that is anything but loving, his characters regularly search for something so perceptibly near and so conceivably real, yet something often revealed to be deceptive at best, nonexistent at worst. And when he applies this tendency with extravagant conviction, enhancing the whimsy further toward the fantastic, the result is something for which an adjective had to be created: “Felliniesque.” Variety Lights (1950), the first film Fellini directed—in collaboration with Alberto Lattuada—revolved around the world of vaudeville, so its prevalent leanings were inherent in its contrived subject matter. His first solo effort, however, 1952’s The White Sheik, began to pull the curtain back on how manipulative, misleading fantasy could collide and collude with reality, and by the time of Nights of Cabiria, in 1957, on the heels of the similarly skeptical La strada (1954) and Il bidone (1955), reality had started to triumph in this topical contest, making idealistic contemplation a day-to-day struggle.
Affirming the individual, occasionally opposing nature of desire, there are two separate fantasies at play in The White Sheik. The first belongs to Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste), a painfully-stressed man whose primary concern is the proper presentation of he and his ornamental new wife. Fresh off the train from more provincial lands, he plans to present his spouse to his dignified Roman family, who have in turn arranged an appointment at the Vatican to see the Pope. As timid as Ivan is animated, his wife, Wanda (Brunella Bovo), has her own agenda. Aloof and reticent (informed of the papal meeting, the soft-spoken innocent meekly inquires, “Will I have to speak?”), she is enamored with the action-packed, soap opera photo comic, “The White Sheik,” and assuming the fan-girl pseudonym Passionate Dolly, she hopes to meet the gallant hero himself. Obsessed with the flawless execution of his visit, Ivan frets about familial prospects and fervently endeavors to live up to any and all expectations (making sure Wanda does the same). Hinging on a successful first impression, his idealized framework results in strained formality and preparatory rigor, advocating a meticulous itinerary and reluctantly acquiescing to potential frivolities (like extra money for a hot bath). Yet despite his envisaged supervision, Ivan’s best laid plans are upended when Wanda slips away, just as his family enters the picture.
For Wanda, her utopian fixation is part of a resolute inner life, a private passion that not only contrasts with Ivan’s vociferous, superficial preoccupation (keeping up appearances), but suggests the secretive temperament of this burgeoning couple. For however long their courtship has lasted, she has suppressed a reserved identity that will only be exposed when she finally meets the fumetti star, Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), at which time her quixotic illusions—the illusion of the comic itself and the illusion of the actor’s persona—will mix and mingle and ultimately dissolve. Introduced as he swings impossibly high in the treetops, landing with inflated flourish, Rivoli appears to live up to Wanda’s impressive ideal. In regrettably short order, though, the truth of the situation presents itself, and Rivoli becomes anything but the incarnation of his dashing, daring protagonist. The egotistical celebrity takes advantage of his fictional personality, taking advantage of Wanda along the way, as she struggles to differentiate between the performer and the creation. However, as the layers of illusion unravel, this façade likewise crumbles when the shoot begins and the director steps in as the authoritative voice, illuminating the assembly of the comic narrative and the fictionalized roles. With a diffident, drifting smile, Wanda fails to grasp the display at first; even against the backdrop of fake reactions, affected postures, and the behind-the-scenes indifference of cast and crew, her devotion is so sincere and heartfelt that the deception fades in the face of her piety.
Through the course of her devastating awakening, it’s easy to feel bad for Wanda. “Life is a dream,” she dejectedly concedes, summarizing the core of Fellini’s fancy, “but sometimes a dream is a bottomless pit.” On the other hand, as enacted by high-tension Trieste, who had little prior acting experience, as opposed to Bovo, who had the year prior appeared in Vittorio De Sica’s thematically comparable Miracle in Milan, Ivan’s plight is equally tragic, albeit less heartbreaking. (Interestingly, it would be Trieste who developed an extensive film career, with more than one hundred credits to his name, while Bovo stopped acting in the 1960s.) Ivan expects the worst when he sees Wanda’s gushing fan letter (and maybe, truth be told, she hopes for it a little bit too), so he subsequently spends much of the film in a state of comic bewilderment, tending to his family, maintaining the charade that Wanda is simply sick, and, finally, breaking down in sweaty, tizzy hysterics, eventually going to the police with his “delicate matter.”
During his woeful nocturnal roaming, Ivan encounters an inquisitive prostitute named Cabiria. As he weeps by a fountain, she intrudes: “Hey, you! Are you going to kill yourself?” Cabiria derives hilariously inappropriate amusement from his sorrow, with equal parts sympathy and fascination, which makes his traumatic quandary that much funnier—keep in mind, after all, we know he has nothing to worry about, and when he doles out photos of Wanda as an infant, during grade school, and at her first communion, the mania is rather laughable. In the end, following this night of despair, all is reasonably well-resolved for Wanda and Ivan, and though her conjured notions were thoroughly exhausted, at least his fundamental plot was an accomplishment.
But all is not settled with The White Sheik, and it wasn’t for Fellini either. What of this Cabiria character, this diminutive strumpet who made such an imprint during her brief walk-on? Played by Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife of nearly ten years by that point, this peripheral figure evolved into the impetus for her own film, and when she is introduced some five years later in Nights of Cabiria, it is now she who is subject to abuse and ridicule. Robbed and thrown into the Tiber River by her pimp-boyfriend, Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi), Cabiria is rescued by some bystander children (like Masina’s Gelsomina in La strada, she has a way with kids, even one who sardonically calls out: “She lives the life!”). Nearly dead within the first five minutes, it’s an inauspicious start for this errant heroine. Looking like a drowned rat, she trudges home to her friend and neighbor, Wanda (Franca Marzi), who provides cold comfort: that’s life, and this guy was no good anyway. In Cabiria’s world, there is little room for fanciful notions of romance and fidelity (which is why she is later so reluctant to accept the ostensible kindness of François Périer’s Oscar). Bristling with sass and skepticism, Cabiria resists the unlikely deceptions of fictional invention or the tantalizing realities of decency, peace, and prosperity.
Much like Trieste, only more so, Masina is a dynamic physical performer. While he is all gaping eyes and fretful contortions, she inelegantly clomps around and breaks into impromptu dances, with irregular kicks, twists, and a shake of the rump, all supporting the remnants of a bubbling vivacity beneath her taciturn exterior. In these moments of natural movement, there is a hint of latent buoyancy and innocence, a joy ground down by a life on the street. Trieste and Bovo do fine work in The White Sheik, but Masina is the unequivocal star of the show when it comes to Nights of Cabiria. It’s a phenomenal, sensitive performance, which earned her the Best Actress award at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival (the movie would also be Fellini’s second straight to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film). Inevitable comparisons arise between Masina and Charlie Chaplin, by Fellini himself among others, but that affinity takes away from her own unique gifts, her own brand of tragicomic mimicry, her cosmetic motifs and prominent costuming, and her evocative gestures and facial expressions. It’s everything that makes her the singular female embodiment of Fellini’s visionary reverie.
Masina’s conduct must be vigorous, for Cabiria inhabits a vibrant, dramatic domain, with hot-blooded hustlers teasing and goading one another in an attempt to establish their street side supremacy. It’s a decidedly different setting than that of The White Sheik, where the daytime depiction of Rome is as a dazzling tourist epicenter shaped by aspiring impressions of architectural, historical, and cultural significance. At night, when the city had haunted the solitary paths of Ivan and Wanda, in Nights of Cabiria, this is when Fellini illuminates Rome in all its lively, sordid charm, revealing the illusions of the city itself, the veneer of urbane exhibition and the realities of back alley decadence. Location shooting certainly lends each film an air of authenticity (compared to the formulated sets Fellini would later utilize), but the visuals also designate divergent scenic impressions; see the amiable pliability of Arturo Gallea’s cinematography on The White Sheik against the direct, harsh light of Aldo Tonti’s on The Nights of Cabiria. Correspondingly, while some derided The White Sheik and its political apathy,as a blatant departure from the still-prevailing trend of Italian Neo-Realism, which had all but ceased by the time of Nights of Cabiria, the latter film took a more cynical view of reality, contrasting the social spheres of pimps and prostitutes with that of the callous bourgeoisie. (Tellingly, The White Sheik was conceived as the feature debut of Michelangelo Antonioni, who contributed to the story and had already made a documentary on fotofomanzi magazines in 1948, while Nights of Cabiria included Pier Paolo Pasolini among its originators.) In any case, both films proffer the conservative ideals of home ownership, a stable, heterosexual relationship, and the manifestation of economic success.
For all of her bluster, and as much as she is a hardened product of her environment, Cabiria surrenders to her own wishful, borderline blind naïveté, insisting, for instance, that she fell in the river and Giorgio simply got scared and ran away. Significant insight into her capacity for delusion and truth also develops when she happens upon movie star Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), “Mr. Mustache,” as she soon christens the actor. Dazzled by the notion of a night with a celebrity (making sure the other ladies see her latest patron), her enthusiasm wanes when the evening leads to one awkward scenario after another. His stratum is one in which she clearly does not feel comfortable, despite her professed yearnings. She gets lost in swanky nightclub curtains, is baffled by the rhythms of the Mambo, and is later astounded by classical music, champagne, caviar, and lobster (“I saw it in a movie once,” she says, observing the monstrous shellfish). Indeed, this is just another fantasy ruined by bitter reality, as Lazzari’s jilted lover returns and Cabiria is left to spend the night stuck in his bathroom looking through a key hole; it’s the ultimate image of rejection and detachment, a pain Fellini and Masina later alleviate (for the viewer at least) as Cabiria smacks into a glass door on her way out of the house.
Against her better judgement, Cabiria eventually gives in to the charms of Oscar, the stranger she meets outside a theater. Mutual deception abounds, though, and before long, the bottom drops out. Cruel fate turns this unlikely romance into an all-too-predictable tragedy. Otherwise hardened and incredulous in so many ways, Cabiria remains open to fantasy, a testament to her dormant sanguinity and the buried hope that perhaps things can get better. She isn’t asking for empathy, and it’s not entirely her fault she briefly has faith in humanity—why shouldn’t she have her own illusions! Fellini once said that of all his characters, Cabiria was the only one he was still worried about, yet by the film’s end, seeming to forget the futility of it all, there she is, among a band of revelers, cracking a smile. Only someone like Fellini could have a character bounce back after so much, and only Masina could make it believable.
If not quite to the escalating extent of La dolce vita (1960) and(1963), Fellini was already embracing the satirical, carnivalesque atmosphere that would soon define his cinema. In The White Sheik, one sees this during the extended photo shoot, an absurdly frenzied situation set to the tune of a frenetic and formally reflexive circus score by Nino Rota. Although this sequence isn’t born from the vagaries of a specific character (unlike the cinematic dreams of director Guido in ), it nevertheless imparts the fabricated essence of performance and illusion. With an episodic structure yielding itinerant breaks from its fundamental story, Nights of Cabiria similarly features moments of spectacular richness. This includes the enigmatic delicacy of the so-called “Man with a Sack” sequence, which follows the eponymous character (played by the film’s editor, Leo Catozzo) as he disburses sustenance to impoverished cave dwellers. Representing to Cabiria an image of untarnished compassion, it is a touching digression initially cut from the picture; inexplicably, the Catholic Church decried the depiction of someone other than a clerical representative doing good deeds to help the less fortunate.
Even more astounding is the procession to the Shrine of the Madonna of Divine Love, one of the most powerful and transcendent moments in Fellini’s oeuvre. The overwhelming mood of sacred madness, gaudy adornment, and passionate devotion proves too much for terrified Cabiria. “Stay close,” she implores Wanda. “What happens next? … I feel so strange.” Succumbing to the zealous hysteria, she lets loose and pleads, “Make me change my life!” Still, sometime later, after the crowd has died down and the faithful furor has subsided, Cabiria resentfully reflects: “We haven’t changed,” she laments. “We’re all the same.” And though she later trades the tease of this healing treatment for the potential trickery of another fantasy, this time at the hands of a hypnotist magician, that too disappoints, again leaving no permanent impact.
In a way, the suggestion of this profoundly compelling scene is antithetical to Fellini’s subsequent career, which moved further and further from any semblance of concrete practicality, as if he, too, preferred to fall back on illusion. Despite the negative impact on his early characters, he also opted for fantasy above all else, for fabrication. It became his favored rendering of filmic materiality, and it’s what imbued in his movies that instantly identifiable ambiance and spirit. It wasn’t about presenting life as it was, submitted persuasively for the medium. It was about taking that reality and transforming it into something unique, something beyond everyday experience, something inspired and fertile. It was—and remains—just as Leopoldo Trieste stated: Fellini “brought cinema to life.”


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