by NIR SHALEV
Based on a short story by Dostoyevsky, White Nights is a film about dreamers who live in a dream-like Livorno (a port city in Tuscany). Many films evoke feelings through atmosphere alone, lacking content or sophistication, but this film is a masterful example of atmosphere and content coexisting and feeding off of one another.
Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) has been transferred to the city. His job is immaterial but we know that he’s an outsider. A million thoughts roam through his mind as he wanders the city streets at night, a dreamer in a fitting realm. He sees a young woman crying on a bridge and approaches her, attempting to console her. Her name is Natalie (Maria Schell) and she confides in Mario that she is awaiting her lover at that same bridge. She tells him that her lover was a tenant in her grandmother’s house and that he had promised to meet her on that bridge before parting ways a year ago.
Mario is a hopeful romantic and constant dreamer who’s yet grounded and surrounded by reality. Natalie is a hopeful romantic who dreams of her reunion with her stranger (Jean Marais) but is oblivious to the time passing by, and that her romanticism may be nothing more than a fairytale. Consumed by longing for the stranger, she refuses to see the world that exists outside of her, even as Mario tries to make her to notice him because he’s lonely.
The storytelling is in a peculiar style. When a character speaks they speak the truth; their dreams merge with reality. Other characters that listen to them are able to apprehend their reality from their audible desperation, which might lead to delusion and eventual seclusion.
Director Luchino Visconti showcases delusions and desperation in his protagonists and the city that the art department created for them to inhabit is something to behold. It was entirely constructed on a set but looks like a real city: the walls are made of concrete and some are covered by bills and posters, the streets look to be built with bricks, and a large contrast between shadows and light is seen throughout. It looks and feels like a neorealist city but contains an enormous dream-like quality. We, the audience, consistently feel like we’re in a dream state and that we’re grounded in reality at the same time.
Visconti’s background was in theater, film, and the opera and we can constantly sense the other mediums in this film. In the cinematography, his filmmaking side is present in terms of composing beautiful shots while the quiet compositions containing deep-focus, tall buildings, and shadowy streets come from his opera side. Also, the performances of the protagonists contain realism but as we see them drifting through this dreamscape we can sense an operatic grandness and applaud the actors for portraying their characters with their entire body and their soul.
Here’s a primary example of the director’s way of telling a story without using words: Mario tries to take Natalie’s mind off of her mysterious stranger and at the same time win her heart and have her notice him, so he takes her to a night club. There they begin to dance and we feel that they are happy together. Within that moment they are happy, but Visconti expertly throws many other dancing couples onto the dance-floor and Mario and Natalie drift apart, dancing with others that take their hands. While dancing with another woman, Mario constantly looks over the heads of the other dancers at Natalie and vice versa but we understand, in a visual sense, that Mario and Natalie cannot be together; he wants to be with her and she wants to be with her stranger.
The film is easier to understand by watching it than reading about it. The chemistry between Mastroianni and Schell feels real and yet you can sense that her character is always somewhere else, figuratively speaking. Every element in this film that contributes to the storytelling gets the job done in spades, from the surrealistic lighting to the story taking place entirely at night, except at the very end, and the war-torn look of the city. We take in the crumbled and decayed walls and associate those images with the surrealism of the film in our subconscious. In doing so we understand what is happening from the visuals, without the need for much dialogue.
Film is after all a visual medium, yet telling one’s story through visuals more than dialogue is hard to pull off. It is especially difficult conveying a sophisticated visual landscape to contemporary audiences who must be spoon-fed explosions and random acts of sexuality. I believe that Visconti had outdone himself with this early masterwork and can’t thank Fyodor Dostoyevsky enough for having concocted the short story out of observing Russian society like a hawk.