Le notti bianche
January 30, 2006
When Fyodor Dostoyevsky was 27 years old, he wrote a series of columns for the Saint Petersburg Gazette. They were short pieces about his observations on city life and were eventually published as the Petersburg Chronicle. Luchino Visconti’s Le notti bianche (1957) is an adaptation of one of the stories in this collection.
Mario (Mastroianni) is a lonely man wandering the city streets (captured by Giuseppe Rotunno’s richly textured black and white cinematography). He spots a young woman (Schell) crying to herself on a bridge. He scares off a couple of punks bothering her and they strike up a conversation. He’s a shy person who doesn’t have many friends because he’s moved to the city for work and doesn’t know anybody. He walks her home and they agree to meet again. The woman, Natalia, also has very few people in her life, just a nearly blind grandmother and a lover she hasn’t seen in a year.
A friendship develops between these two lost people. He is clearly in love with her but she’s had her heart broken in the past and recounts a story of a love affair that has yet to achieve any kind of closure. Mario acts as her confident (she even refers to him as an older brother) but encourages her to forget this man so that he court her romantically. However, Mario is no angel. He rips up a note Natalia gave him to deliver to the man she’s been in love with. He is jealous and angry that she’s wasting her time on a man who doesn’t appear to be interested in her when he has genuine feelings towards her.
Marcello Mastrianni, with his kind eyes and engaging smile, is the ideal romantic lead. And yet, there is a sense of melancholy behind his eyes. Initially, it is like Mario is asleep in the world and it is Natalia who awakens his romantic tendencies. She is an emotional person easily prone to tears and Maria Schell expertly conveys this with her expressive eyes.
There are some incredible shots contained in this movie thanks to Rotunno’s cinematography. In one scene, Mario and Natalia talk in the silhouette of a building, enshrouded by its darkness so that only their faces are lit. Another great shot features Mario sitting forlornly on a bridge during a slightly foggy night. Everything has a soft focus look that gives the scene a dreamy quality. The film climaxes during a snow storm, the city blanketed in snow with flakes gently falling in a way that only enhances the dream-like atmosphere before the devastating finale.
For all the romantic trappings of Le notti bianche, these two people never truly connect on a deep, meaningful level as symbolized by the scene where they go dancing and become separated. She dances with a young man who gets her to move with wild abandon and free herself, while he dances with a young woman in a stiff, awkward way, always checking to see where she is. Mario has to be in control while she is much freer with her emotions.
Le notti bianche recalls those relationships that are so intense that you lose yourself in them. Logic goes out the window and time has no meaning. All that matters is being in the moment however fleeting. The film begins with a promising romantic set-up and then by the conclusion turns things around so that for one character the ending is heartbreaking and for the other one of hope.
“Dostoyevsky’s ‘White Nights’” features actor T. Ryder Smith reading the story in its entirety. You have the option of listening to it on the DVD or as an MP3 on your computer.
“Visconti’s Collaborators” is a collection of interviews with screenwriter Suso Checchi d’Amico, writers Laura Delli Colli and Lino Micciche, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and costume designer Piero Tosi. They take us through the origins of the movie and the filmmaking process with Colli and Micciche providing analysis. Rotunno talks about how Visconti wanted the look of the film to be part theatre and part cinema. He also talks about how he achieved the fog effects in this excellent featurette.
Also included are screen tests for the two leads, on their own and together. This footage is silent with Mastrianni coming across as brooding and distant while Schell is all smiles. Although, he lightens up when they’re together.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.