‘White Nights’ movie review: Luchino Visconti’s ‘un-Hollywoodian tale of love’
Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s story of the same name, Luchino Visconti’s 1957 drama White Nights / Le Notti bianche, winner of that year’s Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is not quite a great film for it lacks both great and new ideas. Even so, it is a very good film, using elaborate Hollywood-inspired sets – crafted by Enzo Eusepi on a Cinecittà sound stage – to create a wholly un-Hollywoodian tale of love.
White Nights’ elaborate sets, in fact, immediately brought to mind Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog and its reliance on German expressionistic silent films, as well as the more recent animated feature The Triplets of Belleville. Likewise, the dependency on these roots adds a creepiness to Visconti’s superficially straightforward romantic tale.
Scripted by Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Visconti himself, White Nights’ relatively simple story takes place over several nights during an Italian winter. A poor young clerk, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), who is new to town, meets a beautiful, young blond woman, Natalia (Maria Schell), on a small arched stone bridge. (The anonymous town seems very Venetian, though it was reputedly modeled on Livorno.)
Mario immediately falls in love with her, but she is in love with someone else: a former tenant (Jean Marais) of her grandmother’s home, who had left Natalia a year earlier. According to her, they had fallen in love, but he had to leave for unexplained reasons, promising he would come back for her in a year’s time.
Mario finds her naiveté unbelievable, but listens to her tale. He hopes Natalia will turn to him when the first lover inevitably disappoints her. Thus, he vows to assist her in contacting the former tenant.
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. And 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. Ultimately, Mario is left in the snow with the memory of his one night of joy and a stray dog he had seen earlier in the film. They walk off down a road to the future like Charles Chaplin’s Little Tramp.
‘White Nights’: Timeless tale
The period is never specified, but White Nights is likely set in the mid-twentieth 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.
Both within and beyond itself, White Nights exists outside of time. The element of time is also 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 compressed time to heighten the drama. The viewer accepts this because White Nights never presses too strongly on other points; it never screeches loudly its posits or plaints of the cosmos.
With its fairy-tale-like story and fake scenery and backdrops, White Nights was a stark departure from the visuals of Italian Neo-Realism that Luchino Visconti had pioneered along with Vittorio De Sica. Even so, 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 fact, in a sense White Nights 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.
Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell: ‘Wonderful acting’
Along the way in White Nights, we are treated to some wonderful acting. Marcello Mastroianni, as always, gives a great performance. We can see that, unlike in his many other roles, this time he is playing a truly shy man. Mario displays sincerity and an unwieldy presence around women, even though he is handsome and the object of affection for other women in the film – including the local prostitute (Clara Calamai), who is obsessed with him.
As Natalia, Maria Schell has a less formally demanding role: that of 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 unnamed (and possibly shady) tenant. Why this brooding cipher of a man becomes the object of her 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, even if one can surmise that happens because he is older, more learned, and not too open about himself.
White Nights proceeds with a dream-like logic, and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s camera dissolves only accentuate this conflation of reality and unreality. Rotunno often cuts 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 score is classically Hollywoodian, but it works well because White Nights’ 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 of the film’s 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 prostitute, for obvious and not so obvious reasons.
Also worth noting is that Luchino Visconti places Mario and Natalia on opposite sides of the river which flows 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, and we do not 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.
‘White Nights’: Luchino Visconti avoids ‘trite and hyperbolic melodrama’ while showing that ‘love is blind’
White Nights could have descended into trite and hyperbolic melodrama, and it is thus all the more admirable for the restraint found in its screenplay, acting, directing, lighting, and other aspects. The film 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 scenes – for instance, when we see Mario being swooned over by several young women through a glass window.
In White Nights, love is blind, and 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.
But White Nights is about life, and ultimately most of life is not deep. Thus, the film ends realistically in its lack of profundity, merging two clichés into a newer one: Love stinks, but life goes on. Yet, the fact that a cliché exists does not make it less real a truth. It’s only how one applies the truth – or cliché – to one’s future endeavors that matters.
‘White Nights’: The Criterion Collection DVD
The Criterion Collection’s White Nights DVD offers a twenty-minute featurette with the likes of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, costume designer Piero Tosi, and film critics Laura Delli Colli and Lino Miccichè. There’s also a long trailer, an audio recording of Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights” read by actor T. Ryder Smith, and screen tests of Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell.
And finally, the Criterion DVD features an essay in the insert, “Le Notti Bianche,” written by film historian Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. In it, he discusses the film’s realist / fantasist elements, in addition to the symbolism of the canal bridge that separates Mario and Natalia. Lamentably, White Nights – lushly restored in one of the better enhancements done by The Criterion Collection – comes only with English subtitles.
‘White Nights’: Neither ‘Neo-Romantic’ nor ‘Neo-Intimist’
Luchino Visconti alternately called White Nights Neo-Romantic and Neo-Intimist. In truth, it might be more accurately described as Neo-Fantasist for it is too realistic in tone to be neo-Romantic, and too archetypal to be Neo-Intimist. 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.
Note: This review of Luchino Visconti’s White Nights is a condensed / revised version of Dan Schneider’s text, which can be read in its original form here. The views expressed in this White Nights review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
White Nights / Le Notti bianche (1957). Dir.: Luchino Visconti. Scr.: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Luchino Visconti. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Schell, Jean Marais, Clara Calamai, Marcella Rovena, Dirk Sanders.
© Dan Schneider
Maria Schell and Marcello Mastroianni White Nights photos: The Criterion Collection.