Some movies slowly work their magic, gradually sucking you in. This film had me at hello. As soon as I heard the first few soft, compelling notes of Nino Rota's evocative score, I knew I was going to love this film. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.
A person could probably describe the basic plot of Le Notti Bianche in a single sentence; the film is simple, and all the more timeless and beautiful for being so. It is a mood piece, a tone poem, a thoughtful study of loneliness, isolation and despair in which imagery, the placing of actors and objects within each frame, is as important to establishing character and atmosphere as dialogue and action. Le Notti Bianche works primarily on an emotional level but is also vaguely profound in its existential shadings. It exists in a world halfway between fairy tale and reality, and inhabits that world so convincingly that we never question the more fantastic elements. Cinema as poetry, pure and simple.
Marcello Mastroianni plays a young office worker, new to the city, who roams the streets at night in search of an anodyne for his loneliness. It is interesting to see Mastoianni in his pre-sex symbol days, playing a character who is humble, diffident, and still quite youthful. Only three years later he would appear in La Dolce Vita as the jaded protagonist, a man already bored and angry with his sexuality. Maria Schell is his love interest, a girl so sheltered and ingenuous as to be almost unbelievable, but Schell manages to be convincing, abetted no doubt by the fact that the story is half-fairy tale and a certain suspension of disbelief is required. Jean Marais, possessor of one of the most unique visages in cinema, has a brief role, with little to do other than looking handsome and angst-ridden; he is craggier-looking than in the great films he made with Jean Cocteau, but still charismatic.
The tone of the film is almost like an unbroken line, rarely deviating from its somber pace, with the exception of a couple of key scenes. During the most important and eventful night of the story, the main characters visit a dancehall, and the scene within is wild, sexual, like something out of Fellini, in fact it might have been an influence on the crazy dance scene in La Dolce Vita. Later, Mastroianni's character temporarily hooks up with a woman who has been admiring him for the past few nights, stalking him almost, their encounter ending in a violent confrontation with some street thugs. The way Mastroianni discards the woman is brutal, thoughtless and unsettling, and adds an uncomfortable layer of darkness to the overall sweetness of the character, and the film.
Le Notti Bianche is different than other films in Luchino Visconti's oevre, which tend to be less visually poetic, more melodramatic. The film is certainly as operatic as other Visconti works, but in a more subtle way, how it melds music with the emotion of the moment so perfectly. It's like a Puccini opera, but without the suicide, the crying and screaming, the death by consumption. It tells a gentle story, sad, moving and totally engrossing.