March 23, 2017
La Notti Bianche (White Nights) – Italy, 1957
After a preview screening of Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, one reviewer was said to have commented, “Mr. Statement didn’t make a statement.” The remark highlights an expectation that can hinder someone’s ability to appreciate a movie – the notion that Mr. Lee, fresh on his acclaimed masterpiece Do the Right Thing, was supposed to have had a higher purpose for making his film that simply telling the tale of an perfectionist jazz artist who makes great music at the expense of a personal life. I mention this because I found myself doing something similar with Luchino Visconti’s La Notti Bianche; I expected the film to be about something monumental, and therefore as the film progressed and it slowly dawned on me that it was not going to be, I found myself more disappointed than I probably would have been had I watched the film without such lofty optimism.
This does not of course mean that La Notti Bianche is a bad film, just that it is forgettable, a minor blip in what is widely considered to be a spectacular career. Yet the film is deceptive, perhaps intentionally so. It is as if Visconti knew his film was ultimately about nothing and tried to pull the wool over our eyes. Why else would the film subtly hint at dark elements only to dismiss them later on with events that make what preceded them completely illogical? If this sound harsh, watch the way the film suggests through murky shadows and images of men leaving a bar with multiple women that the film’s lead heroine is in the oldest profession in the world - only then to reveal her as the most chaste woman in Italy. Watch the way the film begins by portraying the object of the woman’s affection as a cold, suspicious cad with something up his sleeve only to cast this characterization off without any explanation for the impression having been created in the first place. And watch as the film tries to convince viewers that the other man in the woman’s life has fallen in love with her as quickly as the film wants viewers to believe he has. One minute he’s proclaiming her crazy, the next foolish and heartless, and then perfect for him. Actually, this was the most believable of all of the film’s storylines, and I’m not such a firm believer in what this film portrays as love at first sight.
I know. I know. Here I am again sounding negative. I can’t seem to help it. Perhaps it’s the critic in me, the side of me that finds it easier to critique than to praise. Let’s look at the film from another angle then.
La Notti Bianche is about a man (well played by Marcello Mastroianni) who has recently arrived in Livorno, Italy, yet been unable to fit in. In the film’s opening scene, we watch as he stands in the center of a Livorno street practically begging for someone to stop and talk to him. When he sees a woman he finds attractive, he finds himself clinging a bit too tightly to the notion that here, finally, is a person that he can make an impression on. He tries too hard, yet his persistence eventually pays off, and he winds up with a commitment from her to meet him the following evening. Thus begins an intriguing courtship between a man perhaps a little too desperate and a woman whose heart belongs to someone who may or may not be stringing her along. I suppose the drama lies in whether the man will eventually be able to change her focus.
There’s plenty to like about La Notti Bianche. The film is well acted, and Maria Schell is so delightful in the role of the woman that she elevates the material to quite impressive heights. However, most of what is praiseworthy in the film comes from its technical side. Visconti once again demonstrated his ability to film the intermingling of light and shadows like few others could. Witness the way the night flickers on the faces on the characters, one moment bringing them into the light, the next blocking them from view. It’s as if Visconti had hired the constellations and made them do his bidding. Scenes in which characters move from the background to the foreground seem to channeling film noir, creating the notion of a land of sin and vice, a land that could easily seduce someone to the dark side. There’s even a jarring moment in which the two lovebirds sail in Livorno’s underground waterway looking for romance only to find homelessness and utter poverty. Jarringly, the man suggests the scene will be more romantic after they’re engaged.
However, the film doesn’t know what to do with any of this, so it simply casts off any notion of seediness or dishonesty. Everyone is good, and even when all hope is lost, the power of love and patience triumphs. Sure, this is not the ending that every character in the film wanted, and it has the curious effect of making you feel guilty for your previous misgivings, but none of that is supposed to matter. Except it does, and it should. La Notti Bianche settles for being about the ordinary. It has no grand message, no purpose other than offering a glimpse of what could have been. The film is neither monumental nor inconsequential. It is simply decent, a film that I was likely more impressed with than liked. Do I feel this way because I expected something different? Perhaps, but sometimes a great director just has an off day. Sometimes he creates a visually stunning piece of fluff that’s only mildly of interest, and hey, sometimes that’s enough. They can’t all be masterpieces. I should remember that next time. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)
*La Notti Bianche is in Italian with English subtitles.