Le notti bianche (White Nights) occupies a central position within Luchino Visconti’s body of work. In appearance at least, it consummates a break with the neorealism of the 1940s and early 1950s and looks forward to The Leopard (1963), in its rendering of subjectivity by visual style, and to Vaghe stelle dell’orsa (Sandra; 1965), in its dependence on metaphor as a structuring device. But appearances can be deceptive, for in 1960, Visconti returned to realism with Rocco and His Brothers, and in its way, Le notti bianche is also fundamentally a realist film, in spite of its excursions into fantasy.
Visconti always liked to work from literary originals, which he would then adapt with varying degrees of freedom. Le notti bianche is a particularly successful example of the mixture of freedom and respect with which he and his scriptwriters approached their task. It takes its title and its basic plot from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1848 short story. In both the story and the film, a lonely young man meets a lonely young woman. Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) is lonely for social reasons: he is a stranger and a newcomer to town. Natalia (Maria Schell) is lonely because she has always lived in isolation, even in the heart of the city, and her loneliness is intensified because she is in love with a man (Jean Marais) who may or may not ever return to her but who continues to occupy her life to the exclusion of any other possible relationship. Over a time span of four nights (late spring in the short story, winter in the film), Mario gets to know her, falls in love, and in the end loses her when the lover she has been waiting for returns as promised, after a year’s absence.
In turning the Dostoyevsky story into a film, Visconti got rid of the first-person narration and made the girl less of an innocent and, in fact, at times something of a hysteric and a tease. In the course of these changes, he also made the ending sadder. In the story, the narrator is allowed a little coda, in which he thanks the girl for the moment of happiness she has brought him. In the film, the hero is left alone, befriending the same stray dog he met at the beginning, back at square one, with no sense that the love he briefly felt has transformed him in any way.
Visconti decided not to make Le notti bianche a costume drama. Instead, he updated the story to 1957 and transferred the action from Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg to Italy. Abandoning his usual habit of shooting on location, he filmed the entire project in a studio. To achieve the tight geographical focus needed, the director and his crew had one large set and various smaller ones constructed, roughly modeled on the Tuscan city of Livorno. The large set is of a typical 1950s Italian city street, with a gas station, shops, cafés, and neon signs. Whereas in his film Senso (1954) the settings were real but managed accidentally to look artificial, here the setting is both artificial and clearly intended to be seen as such. This is partly due to the photography and lighting, which produce an unexpectedly dreamy look, with unusually graduated contrasts reminiscent of the poetic realism of Marcel Carné. But it is also due to the disjunctive presentation of the characters in relation to their surroundings.
Leading off the street is a bridge over a canal, and it is on the bridge that Mario first meets Natalia, sobbing and looking down into the water. The central spatial metaphor of the film is provided by this canal, which divides the set into two distinct worlds, and by the bridge over it, which links these worlds together. The division is suggestive rather than categorical, metaphor rather than allegory. On one side of the bridge is the world in which Natalia lives, with her blind grandmother; on the other side is the vital life of the city, where Mario lives. This spatial division does more than isolate Natalia geographically. It is the symbol for a whole series of contrasts—between memory and actuality, public and private, illusion and reality. Natalia’s world is peopled only by herself, her grandmother, the old lady’s companion and helper, and the mysterious lodger whom the girl loves. It is a world of personal and private relationships existing partly in reality, partly in memory, and partly in the imagination. By being drawn across the bridge and toward Natalia, Mario is forced to partake of the fairy-tale atmosphere of this private world, to share in its illusions and to mix them with his own. But he never fully enters into it; for him, it retains its fantasy quality. He knows of it through her—that is, through her imagination—and his picture of it is compounded of imaginative elements, partly from her fantasy, partly from his own.
Behind the dynamic subjective contrast of the illusions of two wills—Natalia’s that her lover will come back, Mario’s that he can draw her away from herself and her isolation—stand static and objective contrasts, many of which echo antinomies basic to Visconti’s other films, notably those between guilty passion and easy love, permanence and transience, past and present, traditional and pop culture. These antinomies find their most vivid expression in the contrast between the scene of Natalia’s visit with her grandmother and the lodger to hear Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and the rock music sequence in the café across the bridge. While the world on the one side of the bridge is modern and garish, that on the other side, where Natalia lives with her grandmother, is timelessly old. Mario’s task, therefore, is to lead her across the bridge and into the world of life, presentness, and modernity. This happens on the third night. He first tries to take her to the cinema, but since the film has already started, they go instead to the café, where a group of young people are dancing to the song “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town),” by Bill Haley and His Comets. (The lead dancer, Dick Sanders, also choreographed the scene.) Mario persuades Natalia to join him in the dancing, which she, and he, do incredibly gauchely at first. Then Mario takes the floor, in one of the best stagings of a rock number ever produced in cinema. Despite his stuffy remarks about growing old, Mario is relaxed and happy and even succeeds in monopolizing the floor for a Jerry Lewis–type send-up of the star dance. Visconti was far from being a fan of pop music, which here (and later in Vaghe stelle dell’orsa) represents the negative side of modernity, but faced with the opportunity to stage a rock number, he gives it his all. The song is stretched to double its length, which enables Visconti to explore character and personality, as well as to let rip with the music and the dancing. Natalia’s clumsy attempts to keep time with the music, her comical embarrassment, and Mario’s unexpected act of self-display are as revealing of their respective characters as anything contained in the dialogue. In impersonal surroundings, separated from each other by the movements of the other dancers, they manage with difficulty to establish some kind of personal contact. Still, despite its wildness, the scene is curiously unreal. By contrasting it with the opera sequence, Visconti is not just revealing something about his taste in music. He is both illuminating the differences between the protagonists and providing a framework of understanding. The opera-pop contrast is neither isolated nor incidental; it is an essential part of a symbolic structure informing the film.
The structure of the film also becomes clear if one looks at the working out of the plot. The two characters sit on the canal bank, and she tells him about her life, the narrative merging into images of the scenes she is describing. Mario objects to the stories, which he finds implausible. All the time she is trying to force her vision on him. She talks compulsively about herself and alternates between excitement and despair, and between holding off and encouraging the unfortunate Mario. He protests ineffectually. His perception of her is clouded by his illusion that he can pry her away from the world of her imagination. He is enough of a dreamer to submit to this illusion and to allow himself to be attracted to her and to her world. But at the same time, he belongs on the other side. To her he can never mean anything. She is as blind to the ordinary world as he is to the power of her fantasy.
Throughout the film, we are faced with the opposition of two levels of reality, the actual and the ideal. The actual is characterized by transience, modernity, social dissociation: by pop music, youths on motorbikes, a prostitute and her clients, passersby. The ideal, by its nature, is less readily concretized in particular images. It is the product of the transforming power of the imagination. The same contrast that is expressed in the spatial division of the film exists within the characters themselves. On the level of actuality, Natalia is little more than an attractive drone. In her imagination, she is the faithful beloved, and her lover will come back to her because she believes in her love. The extraordinary thing about the film is that she is allowed to triumph, that the ideal becomes reality. At the same time, Le notti bianche is not a sentimental film, and on the level of observation, it is lucid and at all times realistic.
So though it is often said that with Le notti bianche Visconti definitively abandoned the neorealist stance that had been his guiding light throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, and indeed since his first encounters with Jean Renoir, in the 1930s, this is not quite true. By 1957 there was no neorealism left to abandon, and Visconti’s attitude toward it had always been conditional. Realism for him was a means rather than an end. It is true that Le notti bianche is not realist in the manner of Ossessione (1942) or La terra trema (1948), and that at times the story has a distinctly fantastical quality. But his procedure in Le notti bianche is not really different than that in his other films, later as well as earlier. He takes a story—realist in tone, as in La terra trema, or fantastic, as in Le notti bianche—and gives it a strongly realized physical setting on which to ground what he sees as its underlying human truth. This procedure is totally realist, in both its strengths and its weaknesses. Unlike Roberto Rossellini or Michelangelo Antonioni, he has no room for hesitancy or doubt. Everything Visconti shows he affirms as being real, emphatically present rather than just a glimpsed possibility. When, a decade later, he decided to adapt Albert Camus’ L’étranger, the result was a disaster, and much the same could be said of his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. All the subtlety and deliberate uncertainty of the originals gets swamped under a mass of overemphatic detail. But in Le notti bianche, the balance is perfect. The fine detail of the settings and the steady buildup of the characters give substance and consistency to what could have been a very flimsy story, without sacrificing the magical, dreamlike atmosphere of the original. But while the charm of Dostoyevsky’s tale lies in the fact that one can never rationally believe it, in the film, belief is both possible and necessary. When the lodger appears at the end to carry off Natalia, disbelief has to be suspended. But Mario, left alone with his disappointment and in the company of the stray dog, remains the harsh reality.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of History at Queen Mary, University of London, where he directs a research project on the history of the British Film Institute. He is the editor of The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996) and the author of Luchino Visconti (BFI, 2003).