WHITE NIGHTS (La Niotti Bianche) A-
Italy France (97 mi) 1957 d: Luchino Visconti
1957 is a significant year in world cinema, as it is uniquely connected to historical events, coming one year after the spirited idealism of the Hungarian student uprising of 1956 was crushed by an invasion of Soviet tanks mowing down dissidents in the streets of Budapest, also one year after the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party where Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a speech denouncing Stalin and the Stalinist purges as well as the gulag labor systems, leading to the Russian release of THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957), the first film after the death of Stalin to put a human face in Russian films, which went on to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1958. What’s unique about this era is a political thaw, an opening of doors previously closed, where art could once again flourish and express itself freely and openly without having to follow the dictates of a heavy handed, State-controlled social realist agenda. This also led to a changing style in Italian cinema, where the post-war Neo-Realist movement softened its grip, allowing greater freedoms onscreen than ever before, which led to Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), featuring the incomparable Giuletta Masina, which arguably stands up to anything Fellini ever created in his lifetime, and also this film by Luchino Visconti, which couldn’t be more unlike his earlier works, moving from naturalistic, on-site locations into a completely artificially constructed world inside the Cinecittà studios, much of it set in a dreamlike layer of fog, beautifully illuminated by street lamps. The set design of this film is hugely imaginative, transporting Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights from the closely observed detail of St. Petersburg to an Italian city of bridges and canals, loosely based on the city of Livorno. Bresson remade this film in Paris as Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d'un rêveur... (1971), and what the two versions have in common is a beautifully idealized construction of a utopian vision, something rarely seen in cinema.
Opening pensively with the enchanting Nino Rota theme heard here Nino Rota - Le Notti Bianche (1957) on YouTube (2:48), Marcello Mastroianni as Mario finds himself alone on the city streets at night after spending a pleasant but uneventful afternoon in the country with his boss and extended family. A recent transplant to the city, he knows no one, so he takes in the rhythm and atmosphere of the streets around him, where a realist element continues to exist in the way the walls are crumbling and the paint peeling, with piles of garbage swept off to the side of the street where he unsuccessfully attempts to make friends with a stray dog. What catches his eye is a woman standing alone on a bridge trying to hide her tears, German-Austrian actress Maria Schell, who he immediately befriends. But despite his polite manner, she quickly runs away, evading his every advance, but eventually relents and agrees to meet him on the bridge the next night. While it should be noted that there was always an unreconciled tension between the socialist agenda of neorealism and the operatic theatricality of Visconti, who after all, filmed three versions of Verdi’s La Traviata in his lifetime, it is also often said he is one of the greatest directors of women, including Clara Calamai in OBSESSIONE (1943), Anna Magnani in BELLISSIMA (1951), Alida Valli in SENSO (1954), Annie Girardot in ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960), but also Ms. Schell as Natalia in this film. In each case, these females use men for sport and wreak their havoc with a psychic force men can neither resist nor overcome. Natalia is a perfect example, though some might find her performance overly simple and childish, living at home, never leaving the side of her blind grandmother, she is the picture of innocence and naïveté, yet when the floodgates of emotions are released, she is a force of nature, revealing a hidden dimension of love held in reserve for a lodger (Jean Marais) in her grandmother’s house that she met and fell in love with a year ago, briefly seen through flashbacks, but he had to abruptly leave, agreeing to meet her on the bridge in exactly one year. Finding this story fairy tale-like and delusional, Mario can’t help but suspend his disbelief if only to comfort her, as she is in considerable pain at the thought he won’t show up.
Over the course of four nights, they meet on the bridge, where by the last night, Mario is tired of being sucked into her continuing melodrama. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Natalia lives in constant hope, believing with the purity of a child, where to dispel her notion is simply cruel and unethical, leaving Mario no choice but to play along. What’s especially interesting is to see how Dostoevsky’s story of a hopelessly adrift male dreamer attaches himself to an even more innocent girl, whose own dreamlife simply overwhelms his, where Visconti shows Mario grounded by the poverty of his economcis, as he’s so regrettably poor, awakening in his pitiful room every morning to the gossip and chatter of his intrusive landlady, who has a way of getting into everybody’s business, where there is nothing remotely evident of a private thought. With Natalia, however, hearing her hold fast to her illusions has an almost calming and tranquil effect, as it takes the dreariness out of his own miserable life. By the final night, however, Mario is convinced their own love can work, little by little building up his courage in admitting how he feels, which is perfectly expressed in a dance sequence where he starts out confessing his shyness, knowing nothing about dance, remaining coy until another man shows an interest in his girl, where he suddenly lights up the room in an outrageously intoxicating sequence set to the music of “Thirteen Women” by Bill Haley and the Comets seen here: Le Notti Bianche on YouTube (6:08). This sets into play a deliciously romantic set of sequences where Mario confesses his love, where his heart literally opens up in such a delightfully natural fashion, where Mastroianni is nothing less than divine in the role. As the snow begins to fall, so beautifully captured by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, it’s as if their storybook lives have an enchanted touch of grace after all, adding a poetic layer of innocence to their lives, which is suddenly bright and new, reversing courses suddenly, evolving into sheer ecstasy and exaltation on the part of Natalia, who rushes off at the sight of her lost love waiting for her on the bridge, leaving Mario heartsick and utterly devastated, all but crushing his spirit, as if the air suddenly rushes out of his lungs, finding himself once again alone in the world, even more isolated than before.