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Le Notti Bianche: Criterion Collection Film

Updated on April 4, 2013

Le Notti Bianche.

I had always heard that the Italian director Luchiano Visconti was one to be viewed. He did not disappoint. Filmed in 1957, Le Notti Bianche is based upon the Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s short story entitled “White Nights”. The title of the film however means sleepless nights in English. Filmed in black and white this film chronicles the relationship between two strangers who meet at a bridge, each not certain of the other, and their life stories. As the film progresses, we find the existential idea of happiness appears to be prominent in the film, as is a journey that reflects back upon itself in bittersweet repose. Maria Schell plays the beautiful Natalia and Marcello Mastroianni the stranger she meets on a bridge. But there is another character whose influence will affect their lives, played by Jean Marais.

Italian neorealism is the type of film style Visconti utilizes in this film. This new realism mixed aspects of realism with an elegant dreamlike style, but is filmed intending to depict St Petersburg Russia’s lower socio economic locales, even though it is clearly Italian. The film appears more like a play, minimalist in mise en scene and the film appears to be on a set, but we see the areas as dull and poor, with stray dogs loose and people living on the street. In the film, the two main characters are a lowly clerk and a young woman who lives with her blind grandmother and repairs rugs. The director “bridges” the two worlds with the use of a real bridge between seeming reality and fantasy. The lighting is ethereal and the scenery harsh, much like the lives of its inhabitants. The area is depicted as rough and the characters seedy and gang-like.

The interaction between the main characters appears to be almost dreamlike, the girl Natalia beautiful and mysterious. The man, who is clearly smitten with her, ignores the advances of other women as he is intrigued by this lovely lady, who is an enigma. After Natalia tells her story, which is done in retrospect, there is a camaraderie that turns into a kind of confusing love triangle between the two friends, and the mysterious “other” who has disappeared for a year, giving no reason behind his actions. One critic mentioned that: “The film is not so much a straightforward narrative as it is a meditation on the act of being in love, and the consequences of unrequited passion coupled with senseless devotion.” This is a good analogy of the film in that it reminds us how love can blind us and make us do things that do not seem to be reasonable. But there is no reason in all the characters actions, not just the two main characters. If the movie resembles the line between reality and fantasy, we are in the midst of the dream and it will soon become a nightmare for our heroic male lead.

Existentialist ideas describe the nature of human experience in an unfathomable world, a world that only makes sense to a person subscribing to this philosophical ideal by the idea that meaning is life. In this film, we learn in the final scene that happiness, which is so elusive for many, was attained by the man, if even for the short duration of the relationship. We sense that this man may never be happy again, if it is dependent on the fragile position of unrequited love. Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 treatise Being and Nothingness wrotethat "man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth." Tragedy therefore appears to be the flip side to a destiny filled with the search for destiny in this man’s world. These two worlds, separated by a bridge, once again offers the viewer a sense that we are all truly alone in the world, at least until we realize our existence depends upon the meaning we make in our own life and how we view our own experiences in it.

One of the most explicitly steamy scenes in the movie takes place in the bar where the characters encounter a dance scene that is explosively sexual. The tension does not seem to disturb the characters sensibilities however as they appear to be comfortable with each other in the midst of this action, and later closer dance positions. It seems the characters work through their feelings in a mature and loving manner, smiling and laughing even as they work out the details of their future together. When returning to “reality” they encounter the distant lover, one with whom no real intimacy has occurred, making the viewer wonder which of the partnerships is more appealing, and questioning the appropriateness of the choice Natalia makes.

Finally, the use of snow must be mentioned in this cinematic representation of the nature of love. Snow has always symbolized a cleansing, a new beginning, a kind of covering of the old that lies underneath it. In this film Mario and Natalia take a boat ride to a secluded place that ends up being very crowded. Yet, as they talk, they decide that they will be together. At the same time the snow begins to fall, making them joyfully exuberant. The boat, which is on the water (emotions) cleanses the couple anew and in European symbolism, snowdrops represent purity, humility and hope. The hope is dashed soon after the couple return to land, but for the few moments they were floating on the water, life held a whole new beginning that “died” as soon as the snow stopped falling.


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