Perception is reality. So goes the current slogan. And this movie addresses that slogan in at least two ways.
First, there is the history of this movie's reception. When first released, it was basically ignored as a minor and un-engaging comedy. Now, knowing that its creator is a genius, people see it presciently as the budding of a master. Which view is correct?
Second, there is the content/form/imagery of the movie itself. The movie abounds with occasions for alternate perceptions: Sick wife or missing wife? Abandonment or accidental delay? White Sheik or fake? A drunk man or a grieving man at a fountain? And so on.
The movie begins with a newly-wed couple arriving in Rome to meet the groom's extended family, family who will take them on a tight-scheduled site-seeing tour or Rome, ending with a meeting with the pope. While the husband naps in the hotel room, the wife slips out to try to quickly see her fantasy hero, the White Sheik who is the main character in a photo-based cartoon strip (popular in Italy in those days). While she is on her unexpectedly long quest, the husand awakes to discover his wife gone. Then three sets of perceptions ensue: the wife's perception of the White Sheik, the husband's perception of his wife's absence, and the husband's family's perception of the husbands's explanation for the wife's absence. (Phew! That's a lot of perceiving!)
Many of these sets of perception are presented to us in fantastic or humorous imagery. The first time we meet the White Sheik, he is on a swing, high and lifted up between trees, in the middle of nowhere. A wide-eyed groom, wanting desparately to "keep up appearances" to maintain family honor, is surprised and frantic (and lying) at almost every turn. The groom's family are in the dark through all of the movie. A fire-breathing man wanders the shadowy streets in the middle of the night. And more.
In most of the foregoing cases, the movie makes clear to us, the audience, which is illusion and which is reality. It is the people in the movie who do not know that their peceptions may be askew. But not everything is clear to us. The next day, for example, the newly-wed groom gives a brief accounting of his behavior during the previous night. Is he telling the truth? Neither we the audience nor the people in the movie know. Their and our assessments will depend on . . . perception. And these and other issues of perception all take place, as does the entire movie, in the shadow of an anticipated "audience" with the pope -- another larger-than-life man who wears white.
Opportunities for perceptions abound.
Fellini has characters in this movie say more than once that life is a dream. Is a dream the same as an illusion or a perception? The movie simply depicts various scenarios in which, about half the time, the illusion is more desirable than the reality. Thinking back now on the White Sheik on the swing, I am reminded of the words of the song, " . . . or whould you like to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar, and be better off than you are, or would you rather . . . " But that's just my free association.
Two elements in this movie make it so effective. One element is that the people are real, actual, identifiable people: an actor is an actor, a wife is a wife, a husband is a husband, an extended family is an extended family, a pope is a pope. They are not "made-up" stick figures standing for or standing in for something else. And yet . . . they tell us about so much more than themselvs. They are what Dorothy Sayers, in the introduction to her translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy," calls "symbolic images" instead of "allegorical figures," which is why Dante's work is so effective -- just like this work by another Italian.
The other element that makes this movie so effective is the humor. The film has a light and jaunty feel. It amuses, so we relax. Oddly, by relaxing and not thinking too hard about ("figuring out") what we are watching, we enter into the scenarios more easily, allowing unfolding issues to seep into us more immediately.
I think this movie is perfect. It is complete and self-contained and stops when it has acheieved its end. It is what it is and nothing more -- or less. It is amusingly disarming in its seeming simplicity. Even a small gem is a gem, and this one sparkles.
PS Viewing this movie in conjunction with Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog" could be instructive (as well as amusing).