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Le Notti Bianche: The Criterion Collection

Luchino Visconti's career began in the 1940s, and his down to earth work grouped him as one of the main members (alongside Victoria Di Sica and Roberto Rossellini) of the Neo-Realist movement. These filmmakers created portraits of everyday life, of people from the proletariat class who struggled daily just to get by. In fact, Visconti directed the most Realist of them all, La Terra Trema (1948), which was shot on location and used non-actors to restage their lives. Like many artistic movements, the Neo-Realist sensibility could not be sustained, or perhaps the limitations of the style had to be toyed with. In any event, its three foremost directors eventually moved on to different types of films. For Visconti, this separation was first sensed in 1951's Bellissima — a comic portrait of a stage mother — but it's 1957's Le Notti Bianche ("White Nights") that's usually cited as the true break; for one thing, it was the first time he shot a film set entirely on studio sets. Nonetheless, labels can limit the artist and the art: Even with his first title, Ossessione (1943), Visconti was unofficially adapting James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Such realist roots are evident throughout his career. Neo-Realism wasn't a dogmatic attempt to install a cinema movement, but a style born of the time and influences. What is more important is the sensibility of the filmmaker, and Visconti always focused on people, how they live, and how they die. With Le Notti Bianche, he also explored how they love.

A young man (Marcello Mastroianni) returns from a day in the country with some co-workers and finds himself wondering what to do with his evening. Taking a walk, he runs into a girl (Maria Schell) who's crying. Not knowing what to do, he feels called into action when two men on a motorcycle try to harass her. Knowing this is his moment, he defends her, and then he introduces himself. He's Mario, and he's recently moved to town and doesn't know that many people. She's Natalia, and she was returning to her stoop to wait for someone. Mario walks her home, and she says she'll see him the next night. Such begins a strange courtship. The next night Natalia tells him about the man she's waiting for: A year previously, a tenant (Jean Marias) moved in with her and her grandmother, and before long the two young people fell in love. However, he had to leave for a year for undisclosed reasons. The year is now passed, and Natalia is waiting breathlessly. Mario is unconvinced, and he asks her to write the man a letter, which he says he'll deliver (though Mario selfishly tears it up and throws it away). The next night their meeting is strained; Mario feels guilty, while Natalia has warmed to him. On their fourth and final night, they spend the evening dancing and falling in love — but the possibility of the tenant's return is never far from their minds.

*          *          *

Adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's short story of the same name, Visconti's Le Notti Bianche is a peculiar sort of love story, a cinematic meditation on the nature of failed love and voyeurism. From the start, Mario is simply an interloper, hoping to make his way into the heart of Natalia, and he does everything he can to break the spell of her true love, from telling her the tenant won't come back to telling her that he loves her. For him, their best night out is also their last, in which he takes her out dancing and tries to make her forget the time of her planned rendezvous. For most of the picture, Visconti keeps his distance: like Mario, the film is peering into something it doesn't belong in. There is a sequence during the dance number where Visconti shoots the couple dancing through a door frame as a woman waits outside, only to have someone yell what time it is to her, which breaks Mario's spell over Natalia — his plan to keep her away is revealed. The sequence is masterful: The two begin dancing to Bill Haley's "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)"; the story then follows Mario as he tries to keep his eye on Natalia after they are split up by other dancers. He then finds he must assert himself (albeit in a self-effacing way) by doing a spotlight dance, in which he twitters and comically jumps around. The more Mario tries to romance Natalia away from the tenant, the more romantic and fevered his dreams become. In this way, Visconti seems to be echoing a romantic fatalism best typified by 1943's Port of Shadows, although this portrait of a doomed romance feels as modern and emotionally honest as it must have when Dostoyevsky wrote it, and later when Visconti adapted it.

The Criterion Collection presents Le Notti Bianche in a solid widescreen transfer (1.66:1) from luminously restored elements, along with the original Italian audio and optional English subtitles. Shot in the studio, the cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (who also shot Visconti's The Leopard and Rocco and His Brothers) is a master class on black-and-white photography, and thankfully the film has never looked better. Included on the DVD is an unabridged reading of Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights" (114 min.) by actor T. Ryder Smith (mostly a New York stage actor, his best known film role is as "The Trixter" in 1994's Brainscan), which also is available as an MP3 file. The featurette "Visconti's Collaborators" (17 min.) offers interviews with Rotunno, screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico, costume designer Pierro Tosi, and film critics Laura Delli Colli and Lino Micciche. Also included are screen tests for Marcello Mastroianni (2 min.), Maria Schell (2 min.), and the two together (1 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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