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LE NOTTI BIANCHE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Schell, Jean Marais, Clara Calamai
Director: Luchino Visconti
Audio: Italian monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Interviews, audio recording, screen tests, theatrical trailer, essay
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 2005

"When I return in a year's time, if you still love me, I swear we'll be happy together."

Film ****

Director 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.

Le Notti Bianche 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 Clement's Gervaise).  She was particularly good in roles as a soulful and suffering woman, such as with her tender performance as Natalia in Le Notti Bianche.

And 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.

The 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.

As 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 gentle stranger.

Over 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 return.

Le Notti Bianche 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.

Winner 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.

Video *** ½

This 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.

Audio ***

Sound 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.

Features ***

Le Notti Bianche 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.

For 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.

Next, 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!

Last on the DVD is the lengthy original theatrical trailer (5 min.).

There 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.

Summary:

Like David Lean's films Brief Encounter and Summertime, Luchino Visconti's Le Notti Bianche follows the European tradition of the Continental love story.  An exquisite if melancholy tale, Le Notti Bianche illustrates the beauty and ephemeral nature of young love.  This is a truly fine film with a superb DVD presentation by Criterion.

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