Marcello Mastroianni excelled at portraying roles that challenged narrow definitions of masculinity. He wasn’t concerned with being the alpha dog. His characters were idealistic, impressionistic, and not consumed by ambition. Whether as the disillusioned journalist in La Dolce Vita, the director facing artistic paralysis in 8 ½, or the man at Sophia Loren’s beck and call in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, he usually went with the current.
He plays such a character in 1957’s part neorealist, part melodrama Le Notti Bianche (White Nights). His name is Mario, a newly transferred office worker to Livorno, a city that resembles Venice. On one of his evening walks, he notices a woman, Natalia (Maria Schell), standing on a bridge, crying. He approaches her, and this chance encounter propels the narrative. Mario and Natalia become friends, and via flashback her story is revealed, that of a closed and sterile life burst open when a mysterious man walked into the house she shared with her grandmother, asking to rent a room. Jean Marais plays the shadowy lodger, in a role that is wisely underwritten, and his abrupt departure from Natalia is softened, slightly, with his promise to return in one year and marry her. But for Natalia, the wait is hell. Mario, at first dismissive the man will ever come back, slowly becomes Natalia’s ally in securing his return.
Why Natalia fell in love with her tenant is never fully explored. He lent her his prized books to read, and his physical presence, and confidant demeanor won her over. And Mario and Natalia’s relationship stays platonic or, as she calls it, a brother-sister arraignment, a wound from which Mario does not flinch. Schell’s performance at first is cloying and excitable, full of girly, irritating tics. In the third act, her self-consciousness gives way to a mature, less self-absorbed, sympathetic woman.
Mario and Natalia have their moment, a magical evening together at a packed club called Bar Nuovo. The song “Thirteen Women” by Bill Haley and the Comets plays in the background (a sign that American music and culture are knocking hard on Europe’s door) as the young stylish crowd dances up a storm. Inside the club, Natalia’s inhibitions break down. Mario, so incredibly happy, dances in a circle performing hilarious robotic movements as everyone around him claps. It’s the most joyous scene in an otherwise morose but lovely picture. It’s also when Natalia forgets about the man who abandoned her, and realizes she and Mario are made for each other.
Director Luchino Visconti is one of the giants of Italian cinema, having directed the neorealist classic La Terra Trema, among others. Visconti based Le Notti Bianche on a Dostoyevsky short story. The hypnotic sets, created at Cinecitta Studios, create a dreamlike atmosphere. Indeed, most of the film takes place at night.
In the bittersweet ending, Mario walks home alone, as snow falls, turning the night white. He carries with him the memory of the brief time he shared with Natalia, and fittingly, that is enough.