- White Nights (1957) movie review: Featuring first-rate performances by Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Schell, and Jean Marais, Luchino Visconti’s affecting, dreamlike love story has the look – but not the feel – of a Hollywood studio production.
White Nights movie review: Top-notch Mastroianni & Schell in Luchino Visconti’s un-Hollywood Dostoevsky adaptation
Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 story of the same name, director/co-screenwriter Luchino Visconti and co-writer Suso Cecchi D’Amico’s 1957 drama White Nights / Le notti bianche isn’t quite a “great” film, as it lacks both great and new ideas. Even so, this Venice Film Festival Silver Lion winner is a remarkable film that uses elaborate Hollywood-inspired sets to create a wholly un-Hollywoodian tale of love.
With production design by Mario Chiari and sets crafted by Enzo Eusepi on a Cinecittà sound stage, the ambience in Visconti’s White Nights movie transfer immediately brought to mind Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog and its reliance on expressionistic German silents, as well as Sylvain Chomet’s animated feature The Triplets of Belleville.
The dependency on these roots adds an air of creepiness to what is superficially a straightforward romantic tale.
Unusual romantic triangle
White Nights’ relatively simple story takes place over several nights during an Italian winter:
New in town, a poor young clerk, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), meets a young, beautiful blonde, Natalia (Maria Schell), on a small arched stone bridge. (The anonymous town seems very Venetian, though it was reportedly modeled on Livorno.)
Mario immediately falls in love with Natalia, but she is in love with someone else: Her grandmother’s (unnamed) former tenant (Jean Marais), who had left for unexplained reasons, promising he would come back in a year’s time.
Mario finds Natalia’s naiveté unbelievable. He hopes she’ll turn to him when the first lover inevitably disappoints her; thus, he vows to assist her in contacting him.
The last night before the man is due to return, Mario takes Natalia out dancing. Later on, he woos her through the cold night, and when a snowfall comes, it makes the world seem bright and new.
Here is where a Hollywood film would end on a crescendo of romantic music and a fade up to the heavens. Fortunately, Luchino Visconti was not a Hollywood hack.
Reality + unreality blend
In fact, White Nights could have descended into trite and hyperbolic melodrama. It is thus all the more admirable for its restraint.
The film gives us only the bare essentials; it never overloads the viewer with information that could heighten the realism while muting the drama. Only small moments are depicted, even in the more elaborate scenes, as when we see Mario being swooned over by several young women through a glass window.
The period is never specified, though the story is clearly set in the mid-20th century, as can be attested by scattered cultural markers such as neon signs and pop music. Yet with just the slightest change of scenery and costume the characters could be living anywhere in history, for both within and beyond itself White Nights exists outside of time.
The element of time itself is also distorted in the film; for instance, we sense Mario and Natalia’s budding intimacy could not have been achieved in a mere four-day period. It’s as if White Nights has compressed time to heighten the drama; the viewer accepts this because it never presses too strongly on other points and never screeches loudly its posits or plaints of the cosmos.
With its fairy-tale-like story and fake scenery, White Nights was a stark departure from the neorealist visuals that Visconti (Ossessione, La Terra Trema) had pioneered along with Vittorio De Sica. Nevertheless, like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, White Nights does end with the “reality” that most lives – and loves – endure pain.
Thus, unreality and reality coexist in White Nights, as Visconti claims to have been his goal. In a sense, this romantic drama is the male equivalent of another Italian film released that same year, Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, in which the female lead (Giulietta Masina) suffers love’s torments and cruel rejection.
As another example of White Nights’ dreamlike logic, Giuseppe Rotunno’s camera dissolves accentuate the conflation of unreality and reality by often moving directly between present and past in one take – e.g., when Natalia first tells Mario her tale, a leftward pan becomes the prior year.
Nino Rota’s music is classically Hollywoodian, but it works well because the film’s screenplay and cinematography play against this seemingly conventional score.
As a plus, White Nights transcends the banality of contemporaneous American love tales by simplifying its story into a minimalist parable while deepening its archetypes. Thus, the film avoids falling into all the easy clichés of the narrative form, resulting in a sort of operatic melodrama of the lost and naive.
After all, all four 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;
- The tenant in whatever intrigues he is still hiding from Natalia;
- And even the local prostitute (Clara Calamai, seen in Visconti’s Ossessione), who is obsessed with Mario.
Along the way, White Nights treats us to some wonderful acting.
Marcello Mastroianni, as always, gives a great performance. Unlike in many of his other roles, we can see that this time he is playing a truly shy man, for Mario displays sincerity and an unwieldy presence around women even though he is handsome and the object of affection of other women.
As Natalia, Maria Schell has a less formally demanding role: The Naive Waif. Throughout much of White Nights, her character moons wide-eyed at the camera while recalling a scene from her past. She is the classic submissive woman waiting for a knight or prince to “take her away from all this” – even though her life is not that bad, for her family 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 (possibly shady) tenant. Why this brooding cipher of a man becomes the object of Natalia’s affections isn’t explained – nor need it be, for this is the way love is. It’s perfectly reasonable that his hold on her not be readily apparent, even if one can surmise that happens because he is older, more learned, and not too open about himself.
‘Faith and idealism’ rewarded
Something else worth noting is that Visconti places Mario and Natalia on opposite sides of the river flowing under the bridge where they meet.
She lives in the older part of town while he lives in the modern part, replete with neon signs and gas stations. He is new to the town, a wanderer seeking stability, whereas she is rooted in the past, in search of a fairy-tale release.
Still, despite all her silliness and naiveté, it is Natalia’s faith and idealism that are seemingly rewarded in White Nights. Mario’s practicality – or pragmatic dreaming – is punished. That seems grossly unfair because one senses something deeply sinister in her nameless, dark, and moody beloved, so we don’t root for his return to her.
Yet, although White Nights ends with Natalia seemingly triumphant, she clearly has chosen the wrong man. We know he is likely to break her heart again. On the other hand, we sense that Mario, bereft as this portion of his life ends, will likely find another woman to fill his life as well or better than Natalia ever could.
In Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi D’Amico’s White Nights movie adaptation, love is blind. Cruelly so.
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 is blinded by the tenant; the more he is absent, the more she desires him. The tenant, for his part, is blinded by his mysteries, whatever they are.
Ultimately, however, White Nights is about life – and most of life isn’t deep. Thus, the film ends realistically in its lack of profundity, merging two clichés into a newer one: Love stinks, but life goes on.
Visconti alternately called White Nights “neo-romantic” and “neo-intimist.” In truth, it might be more accurately described as “neo-fantasist,” for it’s too realistic in tone to be neo-romantic and too archetypal to be neo-intimist. Anyhow, I generally reject such -isms, so I’ll call White Nights 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 the film’s characters – and even less likely to get your reward. This verity is precisely why films like White Nights are made.
White Nights / Le notti bianche (1957)
Director: Luchino Visconti.
Screenplay: Suso Cecchi D’Amico & Luchino Visconti.
From Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 short story.
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni. Maria Schell. Jean Marais. Clara Calamai. Marcella Rovena.
“White Nights Movie (1957): Visconti Gives Dostoevsky the Un-Hollywood Treatment” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“White Nights Movie (1957): Visconti Gives Dostoevsky the Un-Hollywood Treatment” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“White Nights Movie (1957)” endnotes
Luchino Visconti’s White Nights movie is available on DVD via The Criterion Collection.
Jean Marais, Maria Schell, and Marcello Mastroianni White Nights movie images: The Criterion Collection.
“White Nights Movie (1957): Visconti Gives Dostoevsky the Un-Hollywood Treatment” last updated in September 2021.