White Nights (Italy, 1957):
(Le Notti Bianche)

Rossellini transcended it, De Sica falsified it, but to Luchino Visconti, who pioneered it, the newsreel banner of neo-realism grew ill-fitting to his opera-house grand gestures, gradually discarded for a majestic looniness, heightened form for heightened content. Indeed, the opening scene of this adaptation of Dostoyevsky's wistful short story is a rebuke of Zavattinian naturalism, a bus pulling into at a gas station during closing time, the entire burg recreated in a Cinecittà lot -- the lustrous chiaroscuro of Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography delineates limpid artificiality and, to underline the shift, the director's Ossessione leading lady, Clara Calamai, soon turns up as the raven-hooker, only with the spidery-succubus intimations unchained from "realism." Her fog-shrouded cameo also crystallizes Visconti's whore-madonna Manichaeism, contrasted with the agitated girlishness of Maria Schell's Natalia, relentlessly working her fey grin like a milking machine while driving meek suitor Marcello Mastroianni crazy with her saintly wait for her long-absent love (Jean Marais, further enhancing the fairy-tale atmosphere). The main frisson, however, remains between reality and fantasy, a dream of happiness more fragile than La Contessa's in Senso, the maestro pausing for a mini-class on illusionist mise en scène -- Schell crouches by the corner of the frame in her dilapidated home, and the camera turns a 45° pan left to usher in the flashback, the same house now rejuvenated. The dreamy scope, more intimate than Visconti's Risorgimento frescos, gets often underrated for allegedly trading in the political for the romantic, yet the achingly yearning couple's unforgettable juke-joint interlude, where their 19th-century romanticism is faced and enlarged by the raunchy thrust of '50s rock 'n' roll, points irresistibly to the sexual awakening of the next decade. Just as Minnelli would the following year borrow the film's radical theatricality for Some Came Running, here Visconti borrows the pas-de-deux lyricism of The Clock, the snowflakes suddenly falling on Mastroianni and Schell as fake as their emotions are real, open, perplexedly vulnerable. Adaptation by Visconti and Suso Cecchi d'Amico. Music by Nino Rota. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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