Luchino Visconti was one of the founders of Italian Neorealism, which by 1957 had already been diluted into a visual style imposed on movies in other genres and with different agendas. In search of a new direction altogether, Visconti's adaptation of Dostoyevski's Le Notti bianche is shot within the sealed world of a Cinecittá sound stage on an enormous set, a studiously artificial setting. The theme of this intimate romance is the clash between reality and fantasy in affairs of the heart. It stars Marcello Mastroianni but Maria Schell received top billing and is the reason to see the movie - she is riveting as the intensely emotional Natalia.
A featurette on the DVD of Visconti's later, tired Death in Venice shows the director on location fussing interminably over the lighting and atmosphere of a simple canal-side shot. He must have been thinking of the visual control he had in Le Notti bianche, with an entire two or three blocks of streets, buildings and canals for his camera to roam about. In Italian films of the 1950s we expect to see real locations and cinematography that looks documentary-plain; Federico Fellini found some likely streets and empty blocks for Nights of Cabiria and went to work. Visconti was one of the few Italian filmmakers with enough clout and prestige to attract lavish production budgets; his Senso three years earlier mounted a fiery romance before a period background with giant battles and entire cities occupied by costumed troops.
Interestingly, Clara Calamai from Visconti's early, pre-Neorealist and Italo-noir Ossessione makes an appearance in a small role. Her prostitute takes Mario to her idea of a place to conduct business, a freezing brick landing under a canal bridge, in full view of the public. Le Notti bianche is a strange fusion of fantastic and realistic elements.
As in Murnau's Sunrise Visconti wants to artistically control the shooting environment, but the studio setting dominates in its own way. The film resembles an elaborate but artificial Hollywood film of the 1930s or 40s. Marcello Mastroianni is charming as the lovesick, frustrated Mario, but no matter how naturally he moves through the studio set we always have the feeling that he's in a scaled-down doll's house. The canal he and Natalia go rowing on is so narrow his oars don't fit. On the scaled-down street set, a full-sized bus looks like a Sherman tank.
The real focus in Visconti's movie is the almost magical character played by Maria Schell. Befitting the story's fairy tale theme, Natalia is an innocent glowing with romantic hopes. She conducts an entire romance with Jean Marais' tenant without ever really talking to him - there's no evidence that she even knows his name. She works repairing rugs safety-pinned by the skirt to her grandmother, a Rapunzel-like detail that identifes her as the eternal yearning female, a virginal treasure. Natalia's heart may be consumed by the (very suspicious) tenant but it is Mario to whom she opens up, telling her entire strange story about waiting a year for her man to return.
Natalia's mystery tenant-lover behaves as if he's some kind of criminal. She sees him as a saint but he's often depicted as dark and brooding. He talks vaguely about trouble as if he's wanted by the law. Visconti clearly chose Marais for his association with Jean Cocteau's fantasies Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus. 1
Always interesting, Le Notti bianche is unsure in its tone. In the beginning of this highly romantic movie we don't know exactly how to take Schell's Natalie - she seems almost as ditzy as Giulietta Masina's Gelsomina in La strada. The direction gives us the mistaken feeling that a terrible tragedy lies in store. The artificial set with its ancient streets and walls imparts a timeless quality, and elements like the Rock'n Roll dancing seem to be happening in a different world. Natalia's fated backstory is told in brief flashbacks; Visconti cuts directly between the present and the past (something that American movies resisted until the late 1960s) and at least once combines the two in one take: Natalia huddles in a corner, and a pan to the left takes us to a scene from the previous year.
A midnight snowfall is meant to express the happiness felt by Mario and Natalia as they celebrate their new romance, yet in the enclosed set it is no more special than a Hallmark greeting card. As the pair keep meeting only at night, we're halfway convinced Le Notti bianche could turn out to be a ghost story, that Mario will find out that she doesn't really exist. This confusion of expectations is a bit much for such a simple story. Mario and Natalia end up dancing in a club with a group of youngsters swinging to Bill Haley and the Comets. He wants to impress Natalia so badly he doesn't mind putting on a silly exhibition just to amuse her. The carefree fun doesn't seem to fit into the story, yet it's the best scene in the film. The shy Mario's sincerity is evidenced when a local beauty tries to attract his attention by writing "ciao" on a steamy window. He's looking for a something more special and believes he's found it in Natalia.
The biggest thrill remains the pleasure of seeing the way emotions flow across Maria Schell's face. She's capable of just about anything, as evidenced by her wonderful performance in her biggest American movie, the highly recommended The Hanging Tree. For all of Visconti's experimenting with stage sets and romantic obsessions, the best reason to watch Le Notti bianche is to see this unusual woman nervously hoping that her fairy tale will come true.
Criterion's DVD of Le Notti bianche is a beautiful enhanced transfer that shows off Giuseppe Rotunno's careful B&W cinematography. The audio is sharp and clear, even for the loud Rock'n Roll scene. Nino Rota's excellent score never gives away the game by surrendering to completely fantastic effects.
The disc has some very good extras and one unique one. An interview featurette gathers expert remarks on the film (called alternately neo-intimist and neo-romantic) from Visconti's distinguished Italian collaborators Suso Cecchi D'Amico, cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno and costumer Piero Tosi, as well as critics Laura Delli Colli and Lino Miccichè. An audio extra, a recording of Dostoyevski's White Nights read by T. Ryder Smith is also downloadable as an MP3. A trailer is included, but the real grabber is several screen tests with actors Mastroianni and Schell.
The disc was produced by Jason Altman and Heather Shaw.
One thing Savant would really like an explanation for: What does the pattern of dots after Visconti's name represent in Criterion's graphic handling of the movie title?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
White Nights rates:
1. It's also to be noted
that White Nights shows signs of a more modern commercial practicality - besides the Italian
Mastroianni, the other name actors are from France and Germany (Austria?). Visconti's producers
weren't spending all the money for art's sake.