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Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - Le Notti Bianche (1957)

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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006


Love at first sight is such a frightening concept. The notion that, without warning, your emotional circuits could fire all at once, sending you off into sentimental fits so profound that you may never recover from them, is chilling. Some can mistake lust for love, or physical attraction for something far more ephemeral, but when a single glance creates infinite adoration, the possibilities are endless—and so are the potential problems. For you see, love is not an easy emotion. It does not translate well, nor does it affect every person the same exact way. We can try to allude to universal opinions, but the truth is that love means different things to different people. Passion may seem boundless, but everyone has their own set of borders. Crossing over into it can be the best—or the worst—thing that ever happens to you.


Like an elegy to the emotion it best exemplifies, Le Notti Bianche is a tender, bittersweet slice of unbridled radiance, an ode to the concept of the instant connection, and a prayer for a preference of the present over the past. Though it only deals with three main characters, it speaks for all individuals caught up in the perplexing feelings of devotion and attraction. It’s a visual representation of complicated thoughts forced into an ethereal, enchanted world. Italian master Luchino Visconti creates a lilting lullaby, a gentle breeze of a movie that wafts over your soul like a sudden zephyr on a hot summer day. Though taking place mostly at night, this is the bright side of love at first sight. Sadly, like clockwork, every evening brings the harshness of day. Just like any emotion, the brilliance of love can—and does—bring about the gloom of unsatisfied desire.


While strolling the streets of a Venice-like city late one night, Mario (Marcello Mastrioanni) runs into a sad and weeping woman named Natalia (Maria Schell). Instantly taken with her charms, he asks if he can escort her home. Reluctantly, she agrees. Over the next several nights, the couple meets—sometimes purposefully, other times by happenstance—and they soon begin to connect. Mario asks Natalia why she seems so sad all the time, and she tells a long, involved story about her present home life.


Her grandma is a near-invalid who repairs rugs for a living. She also takes in boarders to help pay the bills. Natalia helps her grandmother, as she is the last remnant of the old woman’s family (Natalia’s mother and father ran off years ago). She also feels trapped in her surroundings. But that is not what makes her unhappy. One day, a strange Tenant (Jean Marais) arrived at Natalia’s house looking for a room. The young girl, seeing the startlingly attractive older man, fell madly in love with him, and an unspoken affection began. Soon, the Tenant claimed devotion to Natalia, and the young woman, seeing a possible way out of her subservient life, clings to the hope that they will be together. Out of the blue, however, the Tenant announced that he must leave; he is in a lot of trouble and has agreed to go away for a year. The couple then makes a pact—if they still feel the same for each other a year from now, they will meet along the back-alley bridges of the city, where they will rekindle their bond. It has been over a year now, and Natalia has been back every night. That is why she is upset. She has kept her word, but the Tenant has yet to show.


This information complicates things. Mario wants Natalia all for himself. While she likes this new man, Natalia still sees the Tenant as the answer to her prayers. Mario will continue his pursuit, but Natalia will not let go of the past.


Le Notti Bianche is a tragedy. It’s the story of love unrequited and incomplete, set within the shadows of a gloriously gloomy locale. The dreamscape backdrop may suggest a sort of unkind fairy tale, a dour fable without a happily ever after, but the truth is a little more complex. This is myth masquerading as mystery, an enigmatic movie that reveals its layers in slow, deliberate stages. True, the main narrative thread is the poetic pursuit of a perfect, rhapsodic fidelity, but it is foolish to feel everyone in the film will find his or her own Prince/Princess Charming. At least one character seems settled at the end of the film, and the other two are prepared to live off the implications of that, if not forever, at least for the time being. The subject of the setback may seem novel, and the twisting of masculine/feminine roles may require a little getting used to, but Luchino Visconti—as he has done in several other sensational motion pictures—finds a way to shift and shape his story to fit the format of his feelings. Here, love is inscrutable and unobtainable, always interrupted by elements outside the lover’s control. So naturally, the setting should be surreal. Emotional barriers are a lot more transient than real ones.


The first thing you notice about this film is how inexplicably beautiful it is. Le Notti Bianche frequently resembles a series of sublime charcoal sketches come to life. Like walking through a divine gallery where, around every corner, a new masterpiece awaits, Visconti’s monochrome magnificence is heartbreaking. There are times in Le Notti Bianche when you don’t want the characters to move. The scenery is so stunning, so breathtaking in its interplay of shadow and light that you just want to sit there, drinking in the inherent drama and beauty until your unquenchable aesthetic overflows. It’s not just the places and the presence that is rapturous. Visconti employs three amazingly handsome actors—Marcello Mastroianni (looking better here than he did before, or ever will again), Maria Schell, and Jean Marais—and situates them as icons among the everyday people populating the city. As a result, our eye never wants to leave the characters. We want to experience their exquisiteness, and contrast their fantasy facade against the reality that surrounds them.


This juxtaposition is important, because it helps to emphasize the theme of isolation and loneliness in the film. Visconti wants his characters to be different and distinct, the better to keep them locked in their own often-oppressive world. Mario is a loner, a man who ran from home, kicked about the country, joined the military, got a job, and basically fends for himself. As the movie begins, he’s only just arrived in this vision of Venice, and it’s a daunting and intimidating locale. He is a stranger in a strange land, lost in his thoughts and sticking to certain areas to satisfy his casual curiosity. This is perhaps why he is so struck by Natalia. Aside from being lured by her looks, he senses her remoteness, her connection to something that is making her sad, and it stirs inside him intense, familiar emotions. The reason we buy the love at first sight angle of this film is that Visconti sets us up with characters who seem prepared—or at least predisposed—to such sudden emotional lightening bolts. Mario wants to care for Natalia the first time he sees her, just as Natalia wants to melt into the Tenant’s arms the minute she sees him. All three characters are lonely, not just alone. Such a shared personality trait brings the story’s triptych tendencies to the fore. This is not just a movie about Natalia and Mario. It’s a film about the Tenant as well, and what he means to the burgeoning couple.


It is interesting to note that, as melodramatic as the premise sounds, Visconti does not fill his film with histrionics. This is a movie about small moments, about the casual glance between hopeful lovers, the sharing of a word or the passing of the hour hand. Visconti avoids crowds at first. He wants his potential paramours to remain mysterious, distant, almost unapproachable. As their affection grows so do the number of people in the streets. In perhaps the most stunning sequence in the entire film, Mario attempts to avoid Natalia (he has his reasons) while strolling through a crowded market square. The press of people and the ever-present glances from other women seem to condemn the man, and Mastroianni orchestrates the sequence exceptionally well. Equally telling is a dance hall scene where Mastroianni thinks he’s won the battle for Natalia’s heart. As the music goes from classical to the slink and sexuality of late 50s rock (Bill Haley and the Comets kicker “13 Women (and Only One Man in Town)” is perfectly placed here), we sense the eventual consummation of the couple’s relationship. They dance with abandon and share a closeness that is almost stifling. Yet the minute Natalia hears it is after 10 p.m. (her ritualistic Tenant time), she completely changes.


Such a switch is at the core of Visconti’s vision. He wants to argue that love is not only blind, but cruel and calculating. Every character here suffers from sentimental shortsightedness. Mario believes he can win Natalia, Natalia thinks the Tenant will return, and the Tenant has either put all his faith in a fickle, unpredictable child, or has used his position of paternal power to turn the head of a naive young girl. No one is really focused on the big picture, of how their passions will play out over decades, not just days. Natalia never exhibits the kind of steadfast resolve we expect from someone convinced of their conviction. Instead, she constantly sways between mania and depression, giggling incessantly or weeping torrents. Mario wanders the streets in kind of a happy daze, never really illustrating his professed isolation. Sure, he seems to befriend anything in his path (including a hungry dog), but we never really feel that this minor man has a major problem. This is why the character of the Tenant is so important. He is a mirror and a blank slate, a way for both Mario and Natalia to project their own images of perfection. She sees him as love personified. He sees him as the mysterious object of an undying desire.


Visconti himself is also guilty of playing with our perceptions. He uses his backdrop deceptively, always hinting at unseen evil in the alleyways, untold vices going on in the barely perceptible shadows. As a filmmaker, he understands that the best fairy tales are crafted out of good and evil, not just straightforward virtue. There has to be a threat—a haunted woods, a wicked witch—to keep the fantasy definable. Visconti achieves this through his amazing visual work in the film. The night shots seem brighter than the day imagery. Crowded streets are claustrophobic and chaotic. Rain becomes a representation of the passion in the air, and a sudden snowfall in the final act seems to suggest a breakthrough in our lover’s lives. With the help of his excellent cast (Mastroianni is just superb) and controlled narrative desire, this is a movie that creeps up on you and steals away your subjectivity. When Le Notti Bianche starts, you want Mario and Natalia to find happiness. As the movie ends, you realize that such a goal was antithetical to what happiness really is.


Though there is a density to Visconti’s designs, Le Notti Bianche is not a deep movie. It is base and broad, a testament to the power of love and an indictment of the blindness in said bliss. It certainly functions like a fable since it appears to offer a sad, succinct moral to what, initially, appeared to be a typical boy-meets-girl panorama. Like that first great obsession that you never quite got over, or that intense emotional pull you experienced from someone who is now no longer part of your life, Visconti wants to exemplify the yin of pain to affection’s extreme yang. For every white night (the movie’s title translation), there’s a dark day, either of location or of spirit. Funny thing is, there is no difference between the two states of being. Both exist within the core concept of love. There is no happiness without sadness to signify the difference—and vice versa. For Mario and Natalia, they see salvation in the arms of another. For both Mario and Natalia, what they want may not be the best thing for them after all. That is the lure of love, and the problems of falling into it at first sight. That is also the message of Visconti’s moving visual feast.

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