Like a classic melodramatic heroine, Natalia (Marie Schell), the female protagonist of "Le Notti Bianche" (1957), is trapped by obsessive memories of the past. She returns every night to the same spot on a bridge overlooking a canal as she waits for a mysterious lover from her past to return. No matter that she hardly knew the man (he is not even named in the film and is played by French cinema icon Jean Marais, now a handsome older man) and that he failed to turn up when promised; still she waits, always believing that tonight will be the night.
Then one night something changes. Mario, a stranger in town, wanders through the night streets, alone and looking for companionship. When he passes by Natalia on the bridge, he fears she might be contemplating something drastic and tries to save her from herself. For Mario, it is love at first sight but Natalia's eyes only look into the past. Therein lays the simple conflict of this taught, energetic film: Mario loves Natalia, Natalia loves someone else.
Each of them is in love with a fantasy. Mario doesn't know the real Natalia any more Natalia knows her mystery lover, but that's what makes their mutual obsessions so all-consuming. Mario tries to convince Natalia to see things his way and in one beautiful moment a surprise snowfall seems to be a divine blessing for their love. Alas, Mario is competing against Natalia's "one true love," a battle which is doomed from the start. Needless to say, this affair is not going to end happily, at least not for everybody.
Mario is played by a young Marcello Mastroianni just as he was on the cusp of international fame. He was well-known locally but the opportunity to make a film with director Luchino Visconti was a tremendous break for him. In the next few years, it would seem like a mere stepping stone on his way to roles in "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958) and his star-making performance in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960). Later in his career, Mastroianni made great use of his reputation as the ultimate Latin Lover to mock the macho Lotharios he portrayed. In "Le Notti Bianche", however, Mastroianni's insecurity is completely irony-free. He is nervous and weak-willed; for a so-called protagonist, in fact, he has little impact on the story. Mario is not a great lover armed with devastatingly effective pick-up lines: he simply tags along after Natalia hoping that his dogged pursuit will eventually snap her out of her endless reverie and jolt her back into the present. I have yet to see a Mastroianni performance that is anything less than exemplary and he doesn't disappoint even in this early role. Mario is a complex, sensitive character despite the fact that we know virtually nothing about his background.
I can't say the same thing about Natalia. I don't know what it is about Italian films of the 50s and 60s (maybe of other eras too but these are the only ones I have seen). It seems there are only two kinds of women in these movies: objects of desire (which come in two flavors: innocent, doe-eyed youths and sultry vixens) or spastic, shrieking lunatics who have nervous breakdowns as often as Ozzy Osbourne has acid flashbacks. A prostitute who Mario encounters at one point is a typical of the latter category; she's looking for action and when Mario fails to act she wails like a banshee and nearly tears her hair out until a crowd gathers. Like so many women in Italian films of this era (Antonioni's largely excepted), she is little more than a cartoon character.
Natalia shares characteristics of both types of women. She is the waiflike, blond, blue-eyed (well, the film's in B&W but I'm guessing) Barbie doll waiting for a man to make her happy. She also frequently cries or otherwise wallows in self-pity, a strange combination of impulse and passivity. Schell's performance seems wooden at times, but this becomes much easier to understand when you realize that the Austrian-born actress hardly knew any Italian at all and spoke most of her lines phonetically. Natalia is more a hollow shell than a complete person but, in a way, this serves the purposes of the film aptly. Seen through Mario's eyes, she really isn't a complete person but simply his fantasy lover, more an automaton designed to fulfill his needs than a living, breathing woman with a will of her own.
"Le Notti Bianche," which translates as "White Nights," is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my opinion, short stories make the best literary sources for film adaptations as they provide just enough of a structure for a director to hang his hat on without burdening the proceedings with the onerous demands of a novel-length plot. Visconti updates the story from 1848 St. Petersburg to 1950s Italy in an unnamed town that makes me think of Venice but apparently was modeled on the town of Livorno in Tuscany.
Visconti began his career as one of the great neo-realist filmmakers, shooting with non-professional actors on real locations. In "Le Notti Bianche," however, Visconti used stars and shot entirely on intentionally artificial-looking sets. Critics debate whether the film represents a transition from his early neo-realism to the wild stylization of later films like "The Leopard" (1963); in any case, the effect is striking. Visconti called it "neo-romanticism" and I like that term quite a bit. Mario and Natalia wander through imaginary streets loving their imaginary ideals, each clinging to the imaginary hope that their dreams will be fulfilled if they just believe hard enough. The fake scenery is the perfect backdrop for their shared delusion.
In fact, one of them turns out to be right; believe and it will come true. Yet for another of them, the dream dissipates along with the (highly artificial) fog that clings to the darkened streets. The ending of the film simultaneously represents both hope and despair, and I am reminded that if you pray for something hard enough it will come true… sometimes. The rest of the time, you're just screwed.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. As usual Criterion has provided a magnificently restored transfer that does justice to the crisp, moody black and white photography by Giuseppe Rotunno who personally supervised the restoration. You can't ask for much better.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The soundtrack has also been restored; there are no pops or scratches on the audio. The Nino Rota music sounds great. Optional English language subtitles support the audio.
The extras are relatively sparse by the Criterion scale. The main feature is a collection of interviews (18 min.) with various crew members from the film: writer Suso Cecchi D'Amico, costume designer Piero Tosi and Rotunno. The interviews are standard fare, but will certainly be of interest to Visconti fans.
The disc also includes three screen tests: one of Mastroianni (2 min.), one of Schell (2 min.), and one with both actors (1 min.) The screen tests are all silent.
Finally, the disc offers a new audio recording of the original Dostoevsky short story which is also downloadable as an MP3 file.
Viewers of "Le Notti Bianche" will likely be reminded of "Lost in Translation" as both films depict an intense relationship that blossoms, develops, and comes to a resolution in just a few days (or nights, in this case). I am also reminded of Alain Resnais' wonderful "Muriel" (1963) in which Delphine Seyrig's character, much like Natalia, is obsessed by memories of a long-lost lover who might one day return. While "Le Notti Bianche" is not one of Visconti's most celebrated films, it is still a significant work by him, a moving portrait of a troubled love affair which celebrates the artificiality of its superbly designed sets and creates an intense, bittersweet atmosphere.