Infatuation is fleeting while true love endures even when the connection has ceased. For the dreamer, this distinction is foreign; the concept of true love alone is stranger yet than any fiction. For the dreamer, who favours a life of reclusion, reality itself is alien and a mere interlude for the world of dreams: an expanse of limitless possibilities where they feel safe, where they belong, and where no one cares about their ways. For the dreamer can hardly be considered a human being at all, they roam day and night as empty vessels, occupying a space known only to themselves, and yet their existence is traceable by the masses. Mario is one of these dreamers, a lonely city boy who has recently arrived in town; he wanders the streets at night, alone and brooding but, deep down, aching for the thrill of adventure. One fateful night, while lost in his thoughts, he encounters a woman weeping in the middle of a bridge, seemingly unbothered and unnoticed by her surroundings. Overwhelmed by a strange allure, as if the stars had aligned, Mario rushes to her aid in a spur-of-the-moment decision — unknowingly to him, she too is privy to the type of life he leads, although for a unique set of reasons.
This is the premise of Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche, a deeply felt and richly observed love story as well as the first of several adaptations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights. Dostoevsky, like Dickens or Shakespeare, is no stranger to adaptation; everyone from Akira Kurosawa to Woody Allen have taken a stab at translating the Russian novelist’s work to the silver screen. These adaptations vary in terms of adherence: a filmmaker such as Kurosawa will direct a reimagined but faithful adaptation of The Idiot, whereas one like Allen directs Crimes and Misdemeanors all to present a worldview that is far removed from its source. Le Notti Bianche falls into the former camp in the sense that, although Visconti takes creative liberties with the story, its overall structure and core sentiments expressed remain true to its material. White Nights itself is interesting because it is a relatively minor work, and yet its timelessness transcends any and all confines: a simple tale of two dreamers who fall in a love that is too good to be true, told in between fragmented recollections, while imbued with a dreamlike haze. The story is not dated, nor is it too Russian, a Victorian aristocrat could read it and have it resonate to the same degree as it would for a 21st-century teenager from India. This endurance of White Nights over generations is why the list of filmmakers who have adapted it is incredibly diverse and why each can encompass a distinct identity and yet still maintain the ethos of Dostoevsky. Having said that, one adaptation towers far above the rest and that is Le Notti Bianche.
In Le Notti Bianche, Visconti substitutes the Russian setting of St. Petersburg with the Tuscan city of Livorno, focusing on its Venezia district. While the plot of White Nights is fairly straightforward, a few key alterations are made in this rendition. Dostoevsky’s story is heavily monologue-driven and dedicates a significant portion to exploring the dreamer’s inner thoughts — Visconti gets rid of his aspect entirely, perhaps due to the nature of their respective mediums. Consequently, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) is a much more reserved character than his counterpart as the only insight into his psyche comes from these moments of vulnerability where Mastroianni is given the limelight. The woman that he meets, Natalia (Maria Schell), is a more mischievous portrayal of Dostoevsky’s fellow dreamer, but her sorrows remain the same. She has spent the majority of her life in isolation, sheltered by and living under the strict supervision of her blind grandmother. Natalia’s knowledge of society is sparse; her world consists of little more than her grandma, housekeeper, and a mysterious lodger whose memory she latches onto. In fact, this lodger, portrayed by Jean Marais, is her one true love and the man of her dreams, literally and figuratively speaking — he is Natalia’s long-absent betrothed who vanished, but not before promising her of his return. As a year passed without notice, Natalia’s doubts began to grow and so she wallowed in her misery until an encounter with Mario on that fateful night.
As fate would have it, the meeting of these two dreamers would produce nothing less than a forbidden love. Over the span of four nights, the two meet and Mario consoles his newfound friend, they tell each one another of their lives and, in the process, fall in love. Mario is quick to recognize his feelings but struggles to express his emotions whereas Natalia, caught between the past and present, faces a dilemma. Unfortunately for Mario, the lodger’s very existence lingers throughout the film, whose presence is etched with a mythical aura. Despite Marais’ prolific reputation, he is given little to do in the film apart from brooding in flashback sequences. And still, the casting appears to be absolutely intentional — the lodger is a mystery, a tall, handsome, and Greeklike figure of few words. For the majority of the film, the lodger is a pure manifestation of Natalia’s dreams, an idealistic figure and invisible barrier between her and Mario. It is not until Mario begins to obsess over Natalia, engaging with her memories, and living vicariously through these dreams, that he becomes delusional.
The reality of the situation is that the lodger never forgot about Natalia in the first place. Once Mario deludes himself in this dreamworld where, for a moment, Natalia renounces her past and the two can finally be together, the illusion is immediately shattered. The lodger appears, the dream ends, and Mario comes face-to-face with reality. It is a bittersweet and swift end to Natalia and Mario’s love, at least ostensibly so, and obviously not what Mario had hoped for — and yet that bittersweet sensibility is the beauty of the story. Although their romance cannot be, Natalia cherishes her time with Mario and, at the end, swears that she loves him just as much as the lodger. Visconti, as does Dostoevsky, portrays love through the lens of altruism, an unconditional love that transcends romance. The moment was temporary but the love between Mario and Natalia will live on, no matter how bitter it may be. As Dostoevsky once stated:
To become able to love, a person must resist the urge to serve the self at the expense of others and choose to do the opposite: to serve others, even at the expense of the self.— Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
In many ways, Le Notti Bianche is an unusual film for the master of Italian neorealism and this is the case for several reasons. Most noticeably, this is Visconti’s shortest film and is almost inarguably his most digestible work, compare its miniscule runtime of 101 minutes to the three to four hour-long behemoths that are The Leopard, Ludwig, and Rocco and his Brothers. Moreover, Visconti shot the entire project in a studio, a unique occurrence for the director who otherwise exclusively filmed on location. He had several elaborate sets created, modeled after Livorno’s Venezia district, for the film and all to its benefit. The choice to impose a limited scope that is hard to replicate with an actual town makes it feel artificial — in a good way. The way that Visconti lit the film and curated his mise-en-scène, the choice of location filled with neon signs, canals, and calm rivers, all comes together. Every aspect of this film inscribes a dreamlike and romantic haze, possibly even more so than the book. For my money, no other filmmaker comes nearly as close to capturing the brilliance of Dostoevsky’s White Nights in the manner that Visconti did with Le Notti Bianche. This is a deep cut by the Italian master’s standards, having been surprisingly lambasted and neglected by the Italian film community and remains an underappreciated work, one that is absolutely worth seeking out.