LE NOTTI BIANCHE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Schell, Jean Marais, Clara Calamai
Director: Luchino Visconti
Audio: Italian monaural
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio
Features: Interviews, audio recording, screen tests, theatrical trailer, essay
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 2005
I return in a year's time, if you still love me, I swear we'll be happy
Luchino Visconti was one of the towering figures of Italian neorealism.
His early works Ossessione (1942) and La terra
trema (1948) are numbered among the finest of the neorealist films, although
Visconti never allowed himself to be defined or limited by genre constraints.
In fact, his greatest masterpiece, 1963's The
Leopard, was an extravagant and stylish costume drama that broke entirely
with neorealist aesthetics. The
intervening years prior to The Leopard,
however, represented a transitional period for Visconti.
With neorealism declining in Italian cinema by the mid-1950's, Visconti
was free to explore other avenues of artistic expression in filmmaking.
In this sense, his 1957 film Le
Notti Bianche can be seen as a bridging point in Visconti's career,
revealing a gradual shift away from the neorealist characteristics of his early
films towards the more dreamy and lushly operatic style of his latter career.
was an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1948 short story "White
Nights," a tale about a brief romance between two lonely strangers who meet
one dark evening. The film also
featured some of the top cinema stars of the day (unlike a typical neorealist
film, which predominately employed nonprofessionals).
International superstar Marcello Mastroianni at this early point in his
career had yet to appear in his most memorable films, but he was already
developing the Italian lover screen persona that would define his career over
the next several decades. In Le
Notti Bianche, he portrayed the young suitor Mario.
Playing opposite him in the film was Maria Schell, already a proven
international star with Best Actress honors at the 1954 Cannes Festival (for The Last Bridge) and at the 1956 Venice Festival (for René
She was particularly good in roles as a soulful and suffering woman, such
as with her tender performance as Natalia in Le
of course, there was Jean Marais. A
favorite of legendary French director Jean Cocteau, Marais is best-remembered
today for his truly memorable triple role in the fairy tale classic La
Belle et la Bête. In Le
Notti Bianche, Marais portrayed Natalia's mysterious first suitor, whose
return she faithfully awaits every evening.
Despite limited on-screen time, Marais displayed the charismatic screen
presence in Le Notti Bianche that had
made him the most popular French leading man of the 1940-50's.
original short story of "White Nights" was set in a St. Petersburg of
yesteryear, but Visconti updated the setting to a modern-day Italian town,
changing the season from late spring (as in the short story) to winter.
Unusually for Visconti, the film was also shot entirely in a studio, with
extremely authentic-looking sets modeled upon the Tuscan city of Livorno.
This studio setting afforded Visconti exacting control over the film's
more ethereal and dreamy elements.
Le Notti Bianche opens, Mario has
arrived into an anonymous Italian town. He
is a stranger with no friends or companions, and he wanders the urban sprawl of
the town at night in solitude. Yet
on one cold and fateful evening, Mario encounters a woman quietly weeping over a
canal bridge. She is Natalia, a
sheltered young woman apparently despondent over a private affair.
Touched by her distress, Mario moves to comfort her, and though she
initially resists his earnest offer of friendship, she gradually warms to the
the course of the next several days, Mario and Natalia meet each evening in
town. The relationship between
these two lonely strangers, at first a cordial and polite friendship, slowly
transforms into a more intimate and expressive one. Mario and Natalia share their thoughts and desires in each
other's company, Mario barely masking his growing affections for Natalia even as
she struggles between her appreciative feelings for Mario and her desire to
remain faithful to the memories of her former suitor, who may yet someday
follows a fairly straight-forward narrative path.
As with many of his films, Visconti was able to transform a literary
source into a film adaptation that elaborated upon and surpassed its print
origins. The plot may be ordinary,
but the film's magic lies elsewhere - in the undeniable charisma of its stars,
the exquisite and incredibly atmospheric cinematography, and the sweet charm of
the relationship between Mario, Natalia, and her departed lover.
We do not see much of Marais' character except in flashbacks, yet this
limited background information about him provides the character (who is
nameless) with a more mysterious universality.
Marais's character thus becomes the idealized past lover, against whose
memories all current or future potential suitors must be compared.
How Mario can hope to win Natalia's heart over the constant spectre of
such a romanticized image of past perfection is the underlying dramatic tension
that drives the film to its somewhat bittersweet conclusion.
of the Silver Lion Award at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, Visconti's Le
Notti Bianche is a poignant yet uplifting tale about fleeting and
unobtainable love. This personal and intimate tale has more in common with the
cinema of 1930's French romanticism than with the then-current trend in Italian
cinema. The film's two lonely
lovers may or may not be destined for lasting happiness, but perhaps a romance
briefly encountered and passionately shared in a few instances of youthful
embrace is more ever-lasting than a lifetime of mundane, habitual co-existence.
black & white film is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen format.
The black bars which appear on the left and right of the image are normal
and help to preserve the theatrical aspect ratio.
The transfer was created on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc from the original
35mm camera negative. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno supervised the process to
ensure a high-quality transfer of the film's dreamy cinematography.
The bit transfer rate averages around 8 Mbps and hits a whopping 10 Mbps
every so often. Contrast levels and
gray tones are sharp and quite distinct, and there is practically nothing in the
way of dust marks or emulsion defects. For
an old film, Le Notti Bianche looks absolutely stunning and demonstrates the
potential and evocative beauty of what is now essentially the lost art of black
& white filmmaking.
for this film is in Italian monaural and is primarily directed to the center
channel speaker. The sound quality
is decent and cleaned of background noise, but the post-dubbed dialogue is not
always in synch with the actors' lip motions.
This is a common flaw with Italian films of this period yet ironically
contributes to the film's surreal quality.
The romantic score was written by legendary screen composer Nino Rota
with a pop tune, "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)" by Bill
Haley and the Comets, featured prominently during one exuberant dance sequence.
has some short interviews and interesting audiovisual bonus features.
Among the interviews (17 min.) are sessions with screenwriter Suso Cecchi
D'Amico, film critics Laura Delli Colli and Lino Miccichè, cinematographer
Giuseppe Rotunno, and costume designer Piero Tosi.
The interview clips touch upon the political atmosphere of 1950's Italy,
the film's elaborate sets, its three main stars, and also the lush
cinematography. These interviews
are in Italian with English subtitles.
something a bit different and highly unusual for DVDs, listen to the audio
recording of Dostoyevsky's "White Nights." The entirety of the short story is divided into several
chapters each read by actor T. Ryder Smith.
Conversely, each chapter can also be downloaded from the disc as an
individual MP3 file (all the chapters together take up 78MB).
Be forewarned - at 114 minutes in combined length, these recordings are
longer than the actual film itself! You
will need to allot quite a good amount of time to listen to this audio reading
completely; consider it a throwback to the bygone days of radio theater.
Some background information about the newspaper origin of "White
Nights" is offered in this section, too.
there are rare screen tests (5 min.), courtesy of Artech Video and Cristaldifilm,
with actors Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell.
The footage is silent and features the two actors separately and
together. They make a very winsome
and charming couple!
on the DVD is the lengthy original theatrical trailer (5 min.).
is also a small, fold-out package insert included with the DVD.
The fold-out offers information about the film's cast and crew and the
DVD production credits. There is also an essay, "Le Notti Bianche," by
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in which the film historian discusses Le Notti Bianche's plot structure, its modernist-versus-fantasy
elements, and the symbolism of the canal bridge that separates the two halves of
the city and the lives of the lovers.