I discovered Fellini about 40 years ago -- I became a self declared 'expert' on Fellini with Juliet of the Spirits having read a book and looked at the wonderful stills in the book. Unfortunately, another 30 years passed before I managed to watch Juliet. Huntington, West Virginia didn't get a lot of Fellini films passing through. Fellini was 'easy.' Visconti took a lot longer for me to appreciate.
My first encounter (and last for many years) with Visconti was with The Leopard. I saw it somewhere around 1965 (it was released in '63, but we're talking West Virginia...) and I saw the US release with 20 minutes hacked from the film. By the closing credits I was the only person still in the theater. I had no idea what I had just seen, but I knew it was wonderful!
Later, the only scene I could remember involved Claudia Cardinale (long pause....) and Alan Delon rambling through the house; at one point tumbling onto a bed in an unused part of the mansion. Now keep in mind that nothing happens: as in everybody's clothing stays more or less intact, but the scene had a wonderful erotic charge. And, oh yes, the dance toward the end of the film -- I remember that as well.... Ah, yes... the scene with Burt Lancaster (a surprising, but perfect lead) dancing with the not quite blushing bride to be and clearly a hundred times the man her fiance would ever be. Amazing....
But I'm here to discuss White Nights -- which is what Le Notti Bianche means in English translation.
First, let me begin by acknowledging the obvious: Visconti had an eye for beautiful women. Maria Schell is as different from Claudia Cardinale as day from night, but oh so lovely!
And Marcello Mastroianni...! What can I say? The man is truly awesome. I first saw him in Le Dolche Vita directed by Fellini -- no, wait... that's not true. The years slip away and I see him as the worn out hero (anti-hero?) of the semi-comic 10th Victim. Of course, only years later did I actually see Le Dolche Vita.... Whatever.... I contend he defined the world weary hero, still trying to find his way in a world where nothing quite works and expressing this for perhaps several generations -- for me at least.
White Nights. The sets. The costumes. The strange dark night world of Visconti's dream. Early on our hero befriends a dog (and I think in many ways this is a pivotal moment) who briefly leads him toward the underworld where shadowed figures loom in backlit passageways. A lovely woman crying on a bridge. Marcello's face wonders, 'will I be lucky tonight?' But it's the romantic moment that seizes him.
Is the beautiful woman he encounters insane? Is she naive? a tease? All of these things?
I fought a temptation after the first 15 minutes or so to turn off the movie: Talk. Cry a bit. Talk. Sniffle. Talk some more. Yawn.... But then... a story emerges. A story so implausible that I still wondered about our heroine's sanity -- but which intrigued me. And I also began to realize that our characters had wandered into a magic world -- think an Italian version of Magic Realism.
Following Visconti into his rabbit hole, and out the other side where our heroine's silly story, hardly to be believed and certainly not to be imagined that it could resolve itself positively -- does!
And Marcello wanders down the street in the dawn past the Esso station. For one happy ending we must have another unhappy one -- the balance of nature -- of art at least.
But then a small hopeful moment as the dog from the opening moments reappears and wagging his tail (tale) approaches our sad hero, who pauses once, twice to pet the little fellow before moving on his way.
It's been a tough night for both of them, but it's dawn of a new day. Hopeful.
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