The city of Visconti’s film is a palimpsest in which postwar modernity (nightclubs, movie theatres, beatniks, and loose women) is superimposed on the ruins of the city’s gothic past. Rather than positing tradition and modernity as combatants in a struggle to death, the film insists on the necessity of reconciling them. Or, as the Canadian filmmaker William D. MacGillivray put it more succinctly, “If we lose the past, we lose the future.”
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The enduring influence of Italian Neorealism on world cinema belies the fact that the movement flourished only briefly, for a few years in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) were feted abroad but received a cooler reception from Italian audiences, who by the late 1940s had had enough of reality. In 1949, the Italian government passed the Andreotti law (named after Giulio Andreotti, then the state undersecretary in charge of entertainment), which decreed that films could be denied an export visa if they “slandered Italy.” The subsequent attacks on De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952) – Andreotti accused De Sica of “washing dirty linen in public” – and worse, the commercial success of “rosy” neorealist films such as Pane, amore e fantasia (Luigi Comencini, 1953) signaled the end of capital-N Neorealism as a cohesive movement (Thompson and Bordwell 2010: 330-340; Cardullo 2019: 69).
The leading Neorealist directors, Rossellini, De Sica, and Luchino Visconti, had little choice but to make different, less overtly political kinds of films. (And indeed, it would not have made sense for them to have continued making films like Bicycle Thieves as Italy’s economy recovered.) Contemporary social conditions are not absent from Rossellini’s films of the early 1950s – note the title of Europa ’51 (1952) – but already in Stromboli, terra di Dio (1950), there is an increasing emphasis on spiritual themes (again, note the title). But perhaps no director broke from Neorealism as decisively in terms of subject matter and style as Visconti, whose Senso (1954) is a lavishly produced period melodrama about masochistic female desire filmed in Technicolor and starring Alida Valli and Farley Granger. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the director’s later films represent a repudiation – or worse, a betrayal – of Neorealism, belying Visconti’s professed Marxism. For all its stylization, Le notti bianche is as plugged into the social realities of Italy in 1957 as Visconti’s earlier Bellissima! was plugged into the realities of 1951.
Based on an early short story by Dostoevsky (1848), Le notti bianche moves the action from St. Petersburg to an unnamed Italian city loosely modeled on the Tuscan city of Livorno (which, needless to say, does not have white nights; indeed, the title notwithstanding, the film is almost unrelievedly nocturnal) (Nowell-Smith 2005), implying a historical parallel between nineteenth-century Russia and a rapidly modernizing postwar Italy. Significantly, one of the first, and last, things we see in the film is the sign of an Esso station. In Dostoevsky’s work, St. Petersburg represents the apotheosis of soulless modernity, which the author perceived as a Westen importation artificially grafted on – and diametrically opposed – to a traditional, spiritual Russia, whereas the city of Visconti’s film is a palimpsest in which postwar modernity (night clubs, movie theatres, beatniks, and loose women) is superimposed on the ruins of the city’s gothic past. Rather than positing tradition and modernity as combatants in a struggle to death, the film insists on the necessity of reconciling them. Or, as the Canadian filmmaker William D. MacGillivray put it more succinctly, “If we lose the past, we lose the future” (quoted in Wood 2003: xxiv).
As in Dostoevsky’s story, the film’s protagonist, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni at his least dissipated), is an aimless young man living in a cheap rented room. He claims to have a job, but we never see him at it. The real business of his life appears to be roaming the streets at night alone, and it is while engaged in this activity that he has a chance encounter with Natalia (Maria Schell), who comes from a once-wealthy Slavic family but now lives in near-poverty with her deeply traditional grandmother. Herself deeply traditional but buckling under the pressure of her repressed sexuality, Natalia nearly breaks a date with Mario because she does not want him to think she is the kind of girl who makes dates with strange men. In flashback, the film recounts how Natalia was courted, very properly, by a handsome boarder (Jean Marais) simply credited as l’inquilino; in one scene, he asks the grandmother’s permission to accompany her and Natalia to a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia, 1816). Then, suddenly and without explanation, the boarder skips town for a year, telling Natalia before he leaves that she is under no obligation to wait for him. Now he is back but has not contacted Natalia. She asks Mario (who has already fallen in love with her) to deliver a letter to the boarder, but he tears it up and throws it in a canal.
Visconti’s porous framings (this was his first film in widescreen) and Giuseppe Rotunno’s deep-focus cinematography emphasize the social context of the story. When Mario takes Natalia to a beatnik café – the sequence in the film that most vividly portrays the dynamism of postwar modernity – Visconti pushes Mario and Natalia to the side of the frame, juxtaposing the two of them seated at a table with the lively beatnik dancers. Why then did Visconti shoot the film, which is largely set in exteriors, entirely on a massive soundstage at Cinecittà? From a purely technical standpoint, the film stocks of the period would have made nighttime shooting on location extremely difficult, if not impossible. But more to the point, studio shooting lends the film a stylized, theatrical ambiance, recalling the poetic realism of prewar French cinema – and indeed, Visconti’s first gig in the film industry was as an assistant director to Jean Renoir on Partie de compagne (filmed in 1936 but not released until a decade later). In the film’s most disorientingly anti-illusionistic sequence, Visconti pans from Natalia talking with Mario on the street to the boarder walking into her grandmother’s house, the movement of the camera bridging past and present, interior and exterior, day and night, objective reality and subjective perception. Then, to cap it off, a reverse-angle reveals Natalia, not where we expect her to be (i.e., sitting with Mario in the present), but sitting next to her grandmother in the past, shifting from the subjective register to what Jean Mitry calls the “semi-subjective” (the scene represents Natalia’s memory but the camera does not identify exclusively with her optical point of view) (cited in Keating 2019: 25-26). Visconti underscores the story’s opposition of tradition and modernity by filming the movie in an anachronistic, pre-Neorealist style.
The film’s final shot, with a defeated Mario walking away from the camera in the company of a stray dog, is so reminiscent of the endings of Neorealist films generally and Umberto D. in particular that it could only have been a knowing citation. Yet the implications of Le notti bianche are arguably even more pessimistic than those of De Sica’s film (though, so far as I know, no one ever accused Visconti of slandering the nation). In the earlier film, the title character chooses not to commit suicide with his dog, Flike, and walks off to an uncertain future. By having Mario walk past the same Esso sign that opened the film, Visconti implies that – having failed to establish a tangible link with tradition in the form of a relationship with Natalia – his future can only be an indefinite continuation of his present. As Marlene Dietrich would tell Orson Welles a year later in Touch of Evil (1958), Mario’s future – by extension, Italy’s – is all used up, and Visconti’s films over the next two decades would become increasingly pervaded with an atmosphere of gloomy decadence as the nation prospered materially while festering spiritually.
Cardullo, Robert. “Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. in the Context of Italian Neorealism: Production, Reception, and Precedence.” Cine Forum 33 (2019): 57-80.
Keating, Patrick. The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “Le notti bianche.” Current: The Criterion Collection, 11 July 2005. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/374-le-notti-bianche (accessed 15 August 2022).
Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film Art: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010.
Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.