09Mar12 – 7 – Le notti bianche (Luchino Visconti: 1957)
Visconti’s LE NOTTI BIANCHE (1957) is a vaguely unsettling but gentle fairy tale about two kinds unrealistic love: love at first sight and unrequited love. Mario (Mastroianni; excellent) is a painfully shy office worker of no means who’s been newly transferred to an unnamed Italian town that could be Venice but isn’t. After returning at night from a day in the countryside with his boss and his family (the only people he knows), Mario comes across a “radiantly beautiful” young woman, Natalia (the always annoying Maria Schell), who’s standing on a footbridge, weeping to herself. Mario is smitten. Natalia is also smitten, but with an unnamed former tenant (Jean Marais; eh) of her grandmother’s who promised that he’d return for her at this very bridge after a year he mysteriously had to spend away. The year is up. The film follows Mario and Natalia, with flashbacks, for the next few nights as Mario falls deeper in love with Natalia even as he humors her while she waits for Jean Marais’ return.
LE NOTTI BIANCHE has the trappings of a weepy Hollywood romance complete with lush score (Nino Rota and a thousand violins), but it always insists on its artificiality. Indeed, the movie was shot entirely on exquisitely detailed sets that are clearly sets (there’s a deserved special thank you in the opening credits to Cinecittà for its exceptional technical contribution to the film). Mastroianni for once is believable as an awkward, socially inept man, and he’s superb in a scene where Mario takes Natalia to a bar to wait until the appointed time (10 PM) that Jean Marais said he’d return. Music is playing, people are dancing, and Mario starts to open up to Natalia by telling her about himself, but she’s not really listening and she gets up to dance with someone else. Mario steps onto the dance floor to dance with another woman, awkwardly, and after one of the men does a wild solo dance to Bill Haley and the Comets, Mario, coming even more out of his shell, attempts his own solo. Mastroianni is exceptional here: Mario’s dancing is awkward, jerky, but he’s clearly enjoying himself for once. It doesn’t last. This isn’t the only great scene in the movie (the last 10 or 12 minutes in the snow are beautifully done), but the movie as a whole just misses greatness. I blame it on Maria Schell. A very, very high 7/10. [3/9/12]