DVD Review Of Le Notti Bianche

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/19/06


  Luchino Visconti’s 1957 film, Le Notti Bianche (White Nights), winner of the Silver Lion Award at that year’s Venice Film Festival, and adapted from a Fyodor Dostoevsky story of the same name, is not quite a great film- for it lacks any great nor new ideas, but it’s a very good film that uses the elaborate Hollywood style sets of that era, crafted by Enzo Eusepi on a Cinecittá sound stage that is manifestly artificial, to create a very un-Hollywoodian tale of love, especially in its seemingly dour ending for its hero. The use of these elaborate sets immediately brought to mind Woody Allen’s 1991 film Shadows And Fog, and its reliance on German Expressionistic silent films, as well as the more recent cartoon The Triplets Of Belleville. This film’s dependency on those roots, likewise, adds a creepiness and dark undertone to the seemingly straight Romantic tale the film tells.

  The story is a relatively simple one, scripted by Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Visconti, that takes place over several nights of an Italian winter. A poor young clerk, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), who is new to town, meets a beautiful young blond woman named Natalia (Maria Schell), on a small stone arched bridge, in an anonymous town that seems very Venetian, although reputedly modeled on Liverno. The time is never specified, but likely mid-Twentieth Century- due to scattered cultural markers like neon signs and pop music. Yet, its characters could be anywhere in history, with just the slightest change of scenery and costume. Mario immediately falls in love with her, but she is in love with someone else, a man (Jean Marais) who left her a year ago. He was a former tenant of her grandmother’s home, where she lived. They fell in love, according to her, but he had to leave, for reasons unexplained. He promised he could come back for her in a year and she believes he will return, to continue their promised love. Mario finds her naïve-te and gullibility unbelievable, but listens to her tale, for he is smitten, and hopes that she will turn to him when the erst-lover inevitably disappoints her. What guy has not been in a similar emotional bind? So, he vows to assist her in contacting the man, whom she believes is back in town at a hotel. She dares not confront him, lest seem too demanding and presumptuous- a patently ridiculous idea for one who has waited a whole year for someone. So, she gives Mario a letter to give to the tenant, but he rips it up, and takes her out dancing the last night before the man is due to return. He is not there at the bridge waiting for her, after Natalia is late in arriving. She is heartbroken, and distressed, feeling the fool, but Mario believes he has a chance with her. He woos her through the cold night, and, when a snowfall comes, it makes the world seem bright and new, and here is where a Hollywood film would end on a crescendo of Romantic music and a fade up to the heavens. Fortunately, Visconti was not a Hollywood hack. On their way home, at daybreak, the duo see the tenant waiting on the bridge, perhaps all night long, and Natalia eagerly rushes off to be with him, as Mario bids her well, his heart rent, and he is left in the snow with his one night of joy, and a stray dog he saw earlier in the film. They walk off down a road to the future like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp.

  This film, with its fairy tale like story and manifestly fake scenery and backdrops, was a stark departure from the visuals of Italian Neo-Realism that Viscont had pioneered, along with Vittorio De Sica, but, like De Sica’s famed The Bicycle Thief, this film does end with the ‘reality’ that most lives, and loves, endure pain, as does Mario’s. Thus, unreality and reality coexist, as Visconti claims to have sought as a goal of the film. In a sense, this film is the male point of view equivalent of another Italian film released the same year, Nights Of Cabiria, where in that film it is the female lead who suffers love’s torments and cruel rejection.

  Yet, along the way we are treated to some wonderful acting, albeit in a very restrained manner- even as Mario performs a very Chaplinesque dance routine at a rock and roll club he takes Natalia to, where the song Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town) by Bill Hailey And The Comets is playing. Mastroianni, as always, gives a great performance, for we can see that, unlike his many other roles, this time he is playing a truly shy type of man, with sincerity and an unwieldy presence around women, even though he is handsome and the object of affection for more than one other woman in the film- even the local prostitute (Clara Calamai) who is obsessed with him, and tries to set him up for a mugging. Maria Schell, as Natalia, has a less formally demanding role- that of the classic naïf waif, as much of the film has her character mooning wide-eyed at the camera as she recalls a scene from her past. She is a classic submissive woman waiting for a knight or prince to ‘take her away from all this’- even though her life is not that bad- with a family that obviously has taken good care of her. Jean Marais, who made his mark in the films of Jean Cocteau- especially Beauty And The Beast, is quite good in his brief and stoic role as the unnamed, and possibly shady, tenant. Why this brooding cipher of a man becomes the object of Natalia’s affections is not explained- nor need it be, for this is the way love is. It is perfectly reasonable that his hold on her not be readily apparent, yet one can surmise it is because he is older, more learned, and not too open about himself. Women fall for that sort of type all the time, although, in honesty, ninety-nine of a hundred women would likely prefer Mastroianni’s empathetic and loving Mario to Marais’s distant and mysterious tenant, but the best story, of course, has to be of that hundredth girl who is the exception to the rule. The film proceeds with a dream logic, and camera dissolves by cinematographer Giussepe Rotunno only accentuate this conflation of reality and unreality. He often cuts directly between present and past in one take, such as when Natalia is first telling Mario her tale, and a leftward pan becomes the prior year. Nino Rota’s scoring is very classically Hollywoodian, yet works well in the ways that the screenplay and cinematography play against what seems to be a very conventional score, especially to most American viewers, and most especially those of a half century ago.

  Yet, this film transcends the banality of contemporaneously filmed American love tales by simplifying its story into a minimalist parable, while deepening the archetypes, and not falling into all the easy clichés of the narrative form, resulting in a sort of operatic melodrama of the lost and naïve. All four of the main characters are manifestly lost- Mario in his fantasies of the perfect girl, for which he denies the advances of many females as attractive as Natalia; Natalia in her obsession with a perfect first love with a man she knows little better than Mario- if at all, for why exactly has he got to ‘leave town’?; the tenant in whatever intrigues he is still hiding from Natalia; and even the prostitute, for obvious and not so obvious reasons. Visconti also physically places Mario and Natalia on opposite sides of the river which flows under the bridge they meet at. She is living in the older part of town, and he lives in the modern part, replete with neon signs and gas stations. He is new to the town, a wanderer seeking stability, while she is rooted in the past, and in search of fairy tale release. Yet, despite all of her silliness, and naïve-te, it is Natalia, whose faith and idealism, are rewarded in the film, while Mario’s practicality- or pragmatic dreaming, is punished. This seems grossly unfair, because one senses something deeply sinister in her nameless, dark, and moody beloved tenant, and we do not root for his return to her. Does he work for the Mafia as a smuggler or hitman, as an Italian spy, or what? Does Maria even know his real name? Although the film ends with Natalia seemingly triumphant, even as she clearly chooses the wrong man, for we know he is likely to break her heart again, we sense Mario, bereft as this portion of his life ends, but whom women are drawn to, will likely find another woman to fill his life as well or better than Natalia could.
  This The Criterion Collection DVD presents the hour and forty-one minute film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, has a twenty or so minute featurette with folks like screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno, costume designer Piero Tosi, and film critics Laura Delli Colli and Lino Miccichè. There’s an audio recording of Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights, read by actor T. Ryder Smith, and a long, five and a half minute trailer and screen tests of Mastroianni and Schell. There’s also an essay in the insert, Le Notti Bianche, by world film historian Geoffrey Nowell-Smith where he writes of the film’s realist/fantasist elements, and the symbolism of the canal bridge that separates Mario and Natalia. Lamentably, the film- lushly restored in one of the better enhancements done by The Criterion Collection, only comes with subtitles, no English language dubbed soundtrack. Given the lack of verbosity in the screenplay, this seems an unwarranted and silly exclusion from the folks at Criterion.

  Yet, as easily as the film could have descended into trite and hyperbolic melodrama, it is all the more admirable for its restraint- shown in the screenplay, the acting, directing, lighting, and many other aspects. It only gives us the bare essentials. It never overloads the viewer with information that could heighten the realism while muting the drama. There are only small moments depicted- even in the more elaborate mugging and dance scenes. There is one charming scene, especially, where we see Mario being swooned over by some young women through a glass window, and one writes Ciao to him in the mist upon the pane, that lets us know that, despite being the loser on this night, he will triumph in the end. Yes, love may be blind, and cruelly so, for Mario is blinded by Natalia- the more he tries to sound practical in his dissuasions to her the more he is smitten by her Romantic fortitude; Natalia by the tenant- the more he is absent the more she desires him; and the tenant by his mysteries- whatever they are, but this film is about life, and- in the end, most of life is not deep. The film ends realistically in its lack of profundity. Love stinks, but life goes on, to merge two clichés into a newer one. But, the fact that a cliché exists does not alter it, nor make it less real a truth. It’s only how one applies the truth, or cliché, to one’s future endeavors that matters.

  The film, within itself and without, exists a bit outside of time. There is a sense that time is distorted, for we sense Mario and Natalia’s budding intimacy could not have been achieved in a mere four day period. It’s as if the film has distorted time, compressed it, to heighten the drama, yet the viewer accepts this because the film never presses too strongly on other points- it never screeches loudly its posits nor plaints of the cosmos. Visconti alternately called this film Neo-Romantic and Neo-Intimist, but it is really more Neo-Fantasist, if anything, for it is too realistic in tone to be neo-Romantic, and too archetypal to be Neo-Intimist. I generally reject such –isms, so will call it simply a damned good tale. If you need more of a marker than that to go and see it, then you are more lost and prone to fantasy than this film’s characters, although even less likely to get your reward. And this verity is precisely why films like this are made.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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