Le Notti Bianche (aka White Nights)
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Fyodor Dostoevsky is rightly revered for complex philosophical novels on the order of Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). He wrote smaller, simpler works as well, however, among which his early story "White Nights," published in 1848, has been particularly attractive to filmmakers. One was Italian director Luchino Visconti, who adapted it into the 1957 drama Le notti bianche, one of his most distinctive works.
The main characters of Dostoevsky's tale are a young woman named Nastenka and the narrator, whose name is never given. They're called Natalia and Mario in Le notti bianche, which transplants the action from the Russian city of St. Petersburg to the Italian city of Livorno on the Tuscan coast. In line with the original story, Mario is a lonely, soulful man with few meaningful diversions in his vaguely discontented life; he is happiest simply wandering through the streets each evening. Natalia is lonely for different reasons: she too is shy, and she lives with her grandmother, a blind woman so protective that she pins their skirts together so Natalia can't so go anywhere at all without alerting the old lady.
One evening Mario hears a woman crying in the street and approaches to see what the trouble is. This is how he meets Natalia, who warms up to him when he scares off a bothersome man and comforts her by admitting how timid he is around strangers. When they part, he says he'll be at the same spot the next evening, and without making any promises, she says the same. At their second meeting Mario speaks of his restlessness and dreaminess, and at the next Natalia tells more of her own story.
Her life changed, she reveals, when a new boarder rented a room in her grandmother's creaky house. More cosmopolitan than their previous tenant, he struck up conversations, gave books to Natalia that she read with delight to her grandmother, and took them to The Barber of Seville at the opera. Soon she fell passionately in love with him, but he was just about to leave for Moscow, where he hoped to improve his lot in life. Smitten with Natalia in return, he promised to come back in exactly a year and marry her if she's willing.
Now the year is up, Natalia hasn't heard from him since his departure, and she fears she has lost him forever. Listening to her tale, Mario realizes that he loves her deeply, yet this very love leads him to betray her. After agreeing to deliver a letter imploring her loved one to return, he destroys it instead. Ignorant of this act, and convinced that she'll never see her lover again, Natalia starts reciprocating Mario's strong affection, lending hope to his fondest dreams - whereupon the missing man suddenly turns up, three days late but no less in love with Natalia than before. Mario ends the story as he began it, alone with his thoughts on the darkening street.
As the director of Ossessione (1943) and La terra trema (1948), Visconti was a founder of the Italian neorealist movement, which flourished for about a decade starting in the middle 1940s. He and likeminded colleagues - among them Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Federico Fellini - wanted to liberate cinema from studio sets, trivial stories, and phony acting, replacing these with believable plots, heartfelt performances, and authentic locations where people actually lived and worked. Many neorealists tired of the style in the middle 1950s, however, and Visconti had always been drawn to works on a grand, operatic scale - he was, in fact, an illustrious opera director from 1954 on. He moved to fresh territory with the sensuous Senso in 1954, and with Le notti bianche he made a definitive break with neorealism, building an artificial Livorno at the Cinecittà studio, which receives special acknowledgment in the credits.
Visconti also broke with his characteristic focus on historical subjects, transforming Dostoevsky's story into a universal drama that could be taking place at any time in any city. It isn't surprising that he made this move when he did, since as historians have pointed out, 1957 was a turbulent year for Marxists like Visconti, marked by the recent uprising in Hungary and dissension among Soviet leaders about the direction of Communism under Nikita Khrushchev's rule. Visconti responded by stressing individual happiness over collective ideology and making what's been called his most personal, most utopian film: Le notti bianche concludes sadly for Mario, but Natalia's faithfulness brings her personal bliss when her absent lover finally comes back. Happy endings, it turns out, happen even in capitalist societies!
Visconti clearly wanted Le notti bianche to seem simultaneously as real as life and as unreal as a dream. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as anyone can see in the very first frames of the very first shot: every detail is scrupulously crafted, yet the whole shimmers with a sense of wonder, lending the film a fable or fairy-tale touch. Austrian actress Maria Schell plays Natalia with a childlike innocence that recalls Giuletta Masina's naïve heroine in Fellini's classic La Strada from 1954; it's hard to believe that Schell didn't speak Italian and spent two weeks learning it well enough to say her lines phonetically. Marcello Mastroianni gracefully partners her as Mario - this is one of five movies he made in 1957 - and Visconti's old friend Jean Marais came over from France to play Natalia's lover.
Visconti also had a superb creative team behind the camera. Suso Cecchi D'Amico collaborated with him on the screenplay. Mario Chiari designed the flawless set, which used up a large portion of the production's generous 400 million lire budget. Nino Rota composed the score. Dick Rogers choreographed the nightclub scene where Mario does a loony jitterbug to 1950s rock'n'roll, presenting a deliberately uproarious contrast with the earlier opera scene. And most important, Giuseppe Rotunno brought all of his top-flight artistry to the cinematography. One of his innovations was to hang enormous sheets of diaphanous fabric from beams above the set; when fog effects were needed, Rotunno would activate lighting that illuminated precise areas of the cloth from precisely calculated angles, conjuring up perfect shadings and thicknesses of fog and mist at the director's command. Every aspect of the film is photographed with equal artfulness.
Visconti called Le notti bianche a neoromantic or "neo-intimist" work, and those terms neatly indicate the divide between this film and the neorealist pictures that preceded it. Dostoevsky's delicate story has captivated later filmmakers as different as French cineaste Robert Bresson (Four Nights of a Dreamer, an underrated 1971 romance) and Spanish director José Luis Guerín (the 2007 drama In the City of Sylvia), among others. Of the various adaptations from various lands, however, Visconti's version has the most lustrous reputation and loyal following.
Director: Luchino Visconti
Producer: Franco Cristaldi
Screenplay: Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Luchino Visconti; based on "White Nights" by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Cinematographer: Giuseppe Rotunno
Film Editing: Mario Serandrei
Art Direction: Mario Chiari
Set Design: Enzo Uesepi Music: Nino Rota
Choreography: Dick Sanders With: Maria Schell (Natalia), Marcello Mastroianni (Mario), Jean Marais (The Boarder), Clara Calamai (Prostitute), Marcella Rovena (Landlady), Maria Zanolli (Maid)
by David Sterritt