Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), a young clerk, friendless and far from home, returns to Livorno from a trip to the country where he’s been warmed by feeling of home and family, even if the home and family are his boss’ and he himself has had to maintain the distance and deference required by the difference in their social status. As he leaves them and heads towards home, it’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.
On a bridge, past the stray dogs, the homeless and the rubble, he meets a girl who he thinks a prostitute. Desperate for human contact and contrary to his norms of behaviour, he tries to pick her up. To the distress of both, he’s made a mistake. She’s Natalia (Maria Schell), daughter of formerly well-to-do carpet merchants, now fallen on hard times. She lives with her grandmother, blind and so anxious not to lose her that she keeps her literally pinned to her apron. They make a living by repairing carpets and taking in lodgers.
Natalia’s fallen deeply in love with one of them (Jean Marais). He’s courted her, included her grandmother and the rest of the household in the courtship, took them to the opera, pledged his love… but in the end had to leave, abruptly telling her he could not marry her right away but would meet her a year later, on this bridge. She’s been coming there faithfully every day at ten, waiting for he who does not arrive; which is where Natalia meets Mario. After several attempt to avoid him, they begin to talk, to feel less lonely, to connect. All the while she keeps waiting for the man who promised to return.
Mario falls in love with Natalia; is moved by her purity, her goodness, her faith. He courts her. She welcomes — might even need — the attention. But she remains faithful to her ideal. This faith in turn ignites one in Mario; in inspiring his love, she dissolves his sense of alienation even as Mario accepts that Natalia doesn’t love him and might, at best, come to love him later, after sufficient time has passed for her to forget he whom she truly loves now.
Is the stranger a figment of her imagination or someone real? Can such feelings and ideas live amongst the squalor and compromises of every day life? Is there something to believe in and should we have faith? Are we always doomed to be alone? Visconti and Giuseppe Rotuno show us this metaphorically; we see the couple through foggy windows. Natalia’s reality murked up by her dreams; Mario’s options often directly clarified through cleared up windows or the stark directness offered by those stepping out of the shadows. Only for a brief moment does snow purify all, at least before a shiny figure in black comes back into the picture, where Natalia is asked to make a choice, stay on one side, or cross the bridge to another.
White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is film that sets out to be poetry and succeeds. How you feel and experience the film might depend on how you feel about any film with such intentions. Here a bridge, snow, the contrast between rock and opera, the effects of fog on an image as seen from the outside, all act as metaphors that need decipherment. The film succeeds beautifully but are you up to the task?
As is usual with Visconti, Le Notti Bianche is the fruit of the crème-de-la-créme of cinematic collaborators. Suso Cecchi d’Amico worked with Visconti on the screen adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story. Giuseppe Rotuno creates a world that is luminous, clearly artificial, but lit as if for a deeper truth, with some strikingly beautiful images. It has one of Nino Rota’s most beautiful scores; one of those where a few recurring bars played on different chords capture a range of feeling, and the changes that range undergoes throughout a film. The costumes are by Piero Tossi.
The actors have rarely been better. I sometimes find Maria Schell a bit tiresome but as Natalia she’s distraught, nervous, optimistic and polite but slightly hysterical; always focussed one her goal, smiling as if spiritually lit by a divine spirit. It’s a stylised, operatic performance, not unlike Alida Valli’s in Senso’s but here always played in a lower key and with a smile. Marais, already into middle-aged, playing a cipher with potentially a cruel streak, has never seemed to me more handsome or dashing than he is here. In some shots, it’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.
As to Mastroianni…one can only sigh with awe. Other women are after him in the film, and not only prostitutes. And unlike the Lodger with his fancy opera, he can only offer her Bill Haley and the Comets. And he can’t even dance! I bet the lodger can dance. But Mastrioanni can feel and weep and communicate all of it clearly with a masculine goofeyness that doesn’t mask that his muddling up the steps is a clear offer of his heart, that there’s a joy in his daring to dance without skill, a trust, and a confidence. That he’s the salt of the earth (and is perhaps why he must cry). To me, his dance, is one of the treasures of cinema.
Visconti’s virtuosic display of cinematic skills in White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is truly dazzling. I’ll point you to one simple example, which you can see in the clip below. It’s the moment where Natalia has been telling Mario about the lodger and it’s the one moment in the film where we enter her head. She’s narrating the experience and we’re seeing it as she felt it. Note how seamlessly Visconti moves from the past to the present. See particularly the last ten seconds of the clip, the moment where Maria Schell says, ‘I’ll be yours, yours forever’ and note how seamlessly Visconti takes us from Natalia’s past and her imagination, as she recounts to us how she feels about what happened, to the present and Mario. When the camera cuts from Jean Marais to Maria Schell only to have her embrace Mastroianni. He’s made this move from past to present and a shift in point-of-view, without changing the tone and without even a cut. It’s dazzling.
In spite of being awarded a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the film was not a success when it first came out. I find the posters for the various countries it was released in interesting in its display of different attractions for each culture. Maria Schell gets top billing in all of them but in the Italian poster, the lodger is a faceless figure in the background. The French poster gives second billing to Marais, gives the impression of a romance between Schell and Marais and turns the Mastroianni character into the faceless figure in the bridge. The Danish poster highlights Schell’s whiteness, places Marais and Schell in large size on the left of the poster but places the character on the bridge prominently on the top right of the poster. Each is selling a different thing.
What the film is selling are the concerns of sociology and history. How it feels like to see and what it might yet mean are ongoing concerns. The reason for viewing it now — in spite of protestations from some critics that it’s not amongst the great works of Visconti — is that it is still a great work of a great director, one that requires much of the audience but offers much in return, should the audience be willing to give to and receive from it that which a very great work of this kind requires.