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With Valentine's Day over a week away, I got inspired to finally write something about LE NOTTI BIANCHE after my most recent viewing. It is a wonderful, innocent, romantic film based on Fyodor Dostoyevksy's short story, "White Nights," written in 1848. Italian director, Luchino Visconti, known more for his post WWII neo-realistic films, chooses to update the Russian story to the canals, streets and back alleys of an economic-recovering, 1957 Italy instead of the streets, parks and embankments of a more cheerful, affluent Petersburg. The love triangle is still the same, the intense feelings of love for one another are still the same, the heart-breaking ending is still the same, even their storied lives are similar, but instead of quiet summer nights in Petersburg, vacated by most residents on holiday, we see in this Italian city, presumably Venice, a busy nightlife providing some distraction for the lonely, some "cat-walking" for criminals, and for others another homeless night spent huddled on the cold, cobble stones abutting the canal. Shot entirely on a Cinecitta set, Visconti makes it look as realistic as his other films (OSSESSIONE or ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS) shot on location.
Spoilers: The two lovers are oblivious to the late-night distractions on their first two nights together as most new lovers are when getting to know one another. As Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) listens to Natalia (Maria Schell) confess why she was crying on the bridge over the canal, the third party (Jean Marais) is introduced in flashbacks. He is the absent lover Natalia has pledged to see one year later at a designated time and place, the bridge where Mario first sees her. This sets up the age-old premise of which lover will be the lucky one in the final act. In this final act, their third night together, they enjoy some of the nightlife that others are enjoying. Choreographed to the rock and roll, Bill Haley song, "13 Women," Mario and Natalia brazenly shed their shy inhibitions, transformed now as exhibitionists as Mario jumps in the middle of the encircled crowd for his solo dance routine, eventually coercing Natalia to join him as the crowd cheers them on. I love this scene. They are both so happy to be in love. However, reality literally chimes in as the clock strikes to remind Natalia she is late for another hopeful rendezvous with her returned lover, Marais. Will the tables turn on poor, shy Mario, or will he be happy for once in his life?
The chemistry between Mastroianni and Schell lights up the screen. Schell flirtatiously seduces each frame of the black and white celluloid in her closeups. Her subtle nods of the head, mixed with her adorable smiles and surprise looks are invaluable. Mastroianni, a rising star in one of his first major roles, embodies Dostoyevsky's Mario as much as Visconti's. He totally is Mario, the shy dreamer who has wasted his life away hoping for a relationship just like he has now discovered with Natalia. He's at his best when strolling the streets alone when there is no dialogue. You can understand why he attracts a stray dog to follow him as the camera floats along as he meanders through the streets and back alleys. I can't imagine this film in color, especially when the snow begins to fall on that final "white night."
Final note: this film would make for a great Valentine's gift for that special someone in your life. Criterion has recently released a version, which includes a reading of the short story in case you haven't read it. By the way, if you haven't read it yet, it makes absolutely no difference whether you read it before seeing the film or after. You can also rent the DVD on Netflix.