Le Notti Bianche (1957) ****
Directed By: Luchino Visconti.
Written By: Suso Cecchi D’Amico based on the story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni (Mario), Maria Schell (Natalia), Jean Marais (Lodger), Clara Calamai (Prostitute).
Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche is a romantic fantasy about two lonely, isolated people who share but a few nights together before being ripped apart again. Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) is lonely because he just moved to the city to take a new job, and he knows no one. Natalia (Maria Schell) is lonely because her lover left her, but promised to return in a year, so she has cloistered herself away for the entire time just awaiting his return. She stands a lonely vigil on the bridge over the canal in the city, hoping every night that her lover will return. This is how Mario meets her. She is being harassed by a couple of young punks on a motorcycle that he chases away. He walks her back to her place, and they talk. He is drawn to her innocence and beauty, her sweet naiveté. She doesn’t really see him at all, at least not at first. That is how deep her love, her obsession, with her lover goes.
He returns the next night, and she finally opens up and tells her story to him. Her lover was a Lodger who lived with her and her grandmother for a short while. They fell in love, but he had to go. Where? He doesn’t say, or at least Natalia never feels the need to tell us. She doesn’t even tell us his name. Although the Lodger only appears in a few scenes in the movie, his presence hangs over every scene. Natalia knows he is back in town, and that is why she waits on the bridge every night. It was their spot. She has written a letter to him, and asks Mario to deliver it. He agrees, but when she leaves, he tears the letter up. He wants her for himself.
On the third night, she finally lets her guard down. He allows him to take her to a club, and in an extended sequence, they dance to rock music – badly. This scene has as much in the way of character development as any of the scenes with dialogue. Her timidness comes through when she cannot quite dance the way everyone else does, and nervously laughes. Mario goes for the grand romantic gesture, and ends up in the middle of one of those circles surrounding by cheering patrons, even though he doesn’t really know how to dance. It doesn’t matter. For a few brief moments it looks like they may be happy together. They go into the street, and it’s snowing, and they are laughing and happy. But when they come back to the bridge, the Lodger is there. What will Natalia decide? What do you think?
The story in the movie is as simple as that, yet it doesn’t begin to describe the simple power of the emotions in the film, nor Visconti’s complete control over the film. Eschewing his previous tendency towards realism, Visconti shot the entire film on a soundstage, and the movie is deliberately artificial in terms on its look. It is a marvel of production design this city. On one side of the bridge, Mario’s, everything is full of life and light – gas stations, bars, people always milling around the street. Yet in this crowd of people, Mario is still alone. His only friend is a dog he meets on the street. The other side of the canal, Natalia’s, is the opposite. There are never any lights on, no people walking around. It is dark and depressing, as if only Natalia and her grandmother, and at one point the Lodger, ever lived there. They meet on the bridge that connects the two sides, and the film is about him gradually luring her over to his side. To get her to fall in love with him.
By the end of the film, everything has come full circle for Mario. Once again bitter and alone, he is now also heartbroken. Perhaps at some point in his life, he will be able to gain some perspective on the relationship, but at the end of the movie it is just too early. There is no joy in him as he walks down that street alone again, and once again finds the same dog he did at the beginning of the film. He is alone. And it hurts.