“You feel as if your dreams were alive and you could touch them – and real life just passes you by!”
– Marcello Mastroianni to Maria Schell, Le notti bianche (White Nights)
Night falls on a provincial Italian city. A bus stops; a knot of people get off and step across the gleaming puddles in the street. A solitary young man, wrapped in a long dark overcoat, breaks away from the crowd and sets off in search of adventure. Lights are going out all around him. Shutters close in the walls of houses, high above his head. His steps lead him through a labyrinth of dark, narrow streets, of tiny winding canals spanned by arched bridges. On one bridge, he sees a silhouette of a young girl. He walks past her, pretends to ignore her – but his senses are on the alert. As he passes, he hears that she is crying. He stops for an instant. He wonders what to do. He is poised – without knowing it – between one world and another.
You will have noticed, in these opening moments of Le notti bianche (White Nights, 1957), how everything looks scrupulously real yet ever so slightly false. Adapting an 1848 novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky of the same name, Luchino Visconti transposed the action from the canals of Tsarist St Petersburg to the back streets of 1950s Livorno – to this day, one of the oddest and most idiosyncratic of Italian cities. Disdaining to shoot on real locations, he reconstructed an entire district of the city in minute detail, on a soundstage at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. “It must look as if it were fake,” he said, “but when you start to think it’s fake, it must look as if it were real.”1 The whole film seems to be hovering – just like the young man on the bridge – between a world we tend to call ‘reality’ and one we refer to as ‘dreams’. Who can say for certain which one is the truth?
Such essays in ‘constructed’ reality were wildly out of step with the ethos of Italian Neo-Realism (which Visconti, in the 40s, had helped to pioneer) and also with the trends of commercial film-making in 50s. The overtly ‘studio-built’ films of that time were apt to be exercises in pure fantasy – The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951) and Marguerite de la Nuit (Claude Autant-Lara, 1955) are both good examples. Only Visconti would dare tackle a nominally ‘realistic’ subject in such an outré and rarefied fashion. The critics, of course, were shocked and the Marxist film scholar Umberto Barbaro attacked White Nights vociferously as “a formalistic nightmare.”2 The public was puzzled and stayed away and the film remains a neglected work, even by its director’s most ardent fans.
Certainly, that young man – still standing on that dark, frozen bridge – is nothing like your typical Visconti protagonist. The actor, Marcello Mastroianni, rose to fame in the 50s as a sort of lower-middle-class Italian everyman. His persona was a world away from the languorous exotics (Alain Delon and Helmut Berger, Romy Schneider and Charlotte Rampling) that populate the maestro’s better-known films. Yet he had acted with Visconti’s theatrical company and wanted, desperately, to broaden his range. Otherwise, he lamented, “I’m condemned to playing taxi-drivers to the end of my days.”3 The director’s response – a typically perverse one – was not to transform Mastroianni’s persona but to juxtapose it with an actress, Maria Schell, who was a virtual parody of Visconti’s operatically suffering heroines. Although she was a huge European star in the 50s, Schell’s florid emotionalism has not worn well. She comes across, if this is not too ominous, as the ‘missing link’ between Luise Rainer and Liv Ullmann. Hence she is ideal as Natalia, the young girl who spends the whole night crying on a bridge.
It is through her that Mario (Mastroianni) – the archetypal sensual materialist – discovers an all-new way of being, a whole new type of love. Natalia’s nights are consumed with solitary longing for a mysterious and dashing older man (Jean Marais) who made love to her once and then vanished, leaving only a vague promise to come back. A long-term friend of Visconti’s, Marais barely acts at all in White Nights. He is cast as a homoerotic dream vision, a sculptural relic of his films with Jean Cocteau. (He also bears an eerie resemblance to Visconti himself, at the time White Nights was shot.) Mario is aware that Natalia’s devotion to this man borders on the deranged. Yet his growing infatuation leads him slowly into her dysfunctional dream-world. What begins as a solitary obsession becomes, inevitably, a feverish folie à deux.
With its setting of dark alleys, deserted canals and random encounters, White Nights may well be Visconti’s ‘gayest’ film – even though it contains no homosexual characters or situations. It is perhaps the most evocative film ever about the gay phenomenon of ‘cruising’ and the nocturnal city as a realm of boundless sexual fantasy. The most erotic moments occur, not between the protagonists, but in a sleazy after-hours nightclub where a black-clad, snake-hipped dancer (Dirk Sanders) cavorts to ‘Thirteen Women’, a song by Bill Haley and His Comets. Mario invokes this spectacle, rather naively, as an instance of the ‘real life’ Natalia is missing out on. In truth, Sanders looks more like a dancing dream demon, luring the poor girl ever deeper inside her own delusions. In the words of Pierre Leprohon:
This is also the moment, the only one, when the main figures mingle with the others, approach the latter’s state of intoxication, first lose and then find one another again… After this dramatic and aesthetic climax, the film resumes its progress towards a state of dream. 4
Given a choice between workaday sanity and delusional romantic madness, the characters in White Nights unhesitatingly choose the latter. So perhaps this is a typical Visconti film, after all?
Le notti bianche/White Nights (1957 Italy-France 101 mins)
Prod. Co: Cinematografica Associati/Vides Cinematografica/Intermondia Films Prod: Franco Cristaldi Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Luchino Visconti from a novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky Phot: Giuseppe Rotunno Mus: Nino Rota Ed: Mario Serandrei Art Dir: Mario Chiari, Mario Garbuglia
Cast: Maria Schell, Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Marais, Clara Calamai, Corrado Pani, Dirk Sanders
- Franca Faldini and Goffredo Fofi (eds.), L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano – raccontata dai suoi protagonisi 1935-1959 (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1979), p. 379. Translation from Italian by the author. ↩
- Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance – Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 151. ↩
- Laurence Schifano, Luchino Visconti: The Flames of Passion (London: William Collins, 1990), p. 306. Translated from the French by William S. Byron. ↩
- Pierre Leprohon, The Italian Cinema (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 151. Translated from the French by Roger Greaves and Oliver Stallybrass. ↩