"White Nights" (Italy, 1957) is a minimalist tale of lost and found "love," starring Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell. Directed by Luchino Visconti, the film is a loose adaptation of a Dostoevsky short story of the same name. For fans of Dostoevsky, or this short story in particular, don't look for a screen version of the searing loneliness present in his characters. The film "White Nights" does not truly capture the dark melancholy of the narrator as he imagines the possibility, for just a moment, of finding love.
In the film, Mario is a new arrival in a small town. He appears to have spent some time wandering and now wants to settle down and establish roots. As he walks around, Mario sees in the distance a beautiful blonde young woman. She is on an arched bridge, and as Mario approaches her, he hears her sobbing. Starting out on opposite sides of the small river, they are now joined together.
He talks to her and learns her name is Natalia. She is sad-eyed and hesitant to communicate. They part, with Mario learning little about her, but they run into each other the next night. He asks her, "Tell me your story, and it'll be as if we've always been friends." She protests. "I don't have a story." Then, though, she lays out her sad tale. She fell in love with a rather stern tenant who rents from her grandmother. He then abruptly left town for mysterious reasons, but promised to return in a year and meet her on that bridge.
She cries because she knows he is back in town, but he hasn't appeared on the bridge. She, however, has written a letter to him and asks Mario if he will deliver it. Mario agrees, with reluctance. He has fallen in love with her, and she knows it. She questions: "You didn't think you'd end up playing my older brother. Are you disappointed?" He nods slightly. The plot appears to be moving in a "Hollywood-ending" kind of direction (at least the traditional romantic film ending), but veers elsewhere. In that sense, some of the essence of the original short story resonates.
This film is beautifully and simply shot. It is not in the neo-realist style of earlier Visconti films. In fact, the set design has an artificiality to it, perhaps to reflect the ephemeral nature of the relationship between Mario and Natalia. She tells him, "I love you almost as much as I love him," but her words ring a bit hollow. Here is is a link to the trailer with subtitles, the Criterion Collection website.
Mario has two moments of joy. The first is a memorable scene in a small club where the patrons are dancing to American rock-and-roll of the 50s. Mario and Natalia join the fun, though both are awkward dancers. There's a stylized movement of all the dancers, and the choreography is quite strange. But, that doesn't matter since they, and all the other dancers, are momentarily shedding their sorrows and locked-in feelings. In a latter scene, when Mario and Natalia are playing in snow (the true white night), there is talk of love and brightness.
While the film focuses on the dynamic between these two, important roles are played by the dour-faced tenant (Jean Marais) and the prostitute (Clara Calamai) who is drawn to Mario, perhaps not just for his money. Each of these four characters is searching for something. The same thing? Whether they will find what they're looking for is the question the viewer may want answered.
I have a suggestion. After watching the film (not before), read the short story if you have not. Dostoevsky's words delve much more deeply into the heart of the lonely protagonist and ring more true. But then, Visconti's "White Nights" is, indeed, a movie.
It screens at the Whitsell Auditorium on Friday, September 27 at 7:00 pm and Sunday, September 29 at 4:30 PM. Tickets range from $6 to $9 and can be purchased at the Whitsell box office a half hour prior to screening time, 1219 SW Park Avenue (northern entrance of the Portland Art Museum building). Tickets can also be purchased on the Northwest Film Center's website.