Le Notti Bianche

Le Notti Bianche.


I had always heard that the Italian director Luchiano Visconti was one to be viewed. He did not disappoint. Filmed in 1957, Le Notti Bianche is based upon the Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s short story entitled “White Nights”. The title of the film however means sleepless nights in English. Filmed in black and white this film chronicles the relationship between two strangers who meet at a bridge, each not certain of the other, and their life stories. As the film progresses, we find the existential idea of happiness appears to be prominent in the film, as is a journey that reflects back upon itself in bittersweet repose. Maria Schell plays the beautiful Natalia and Marcello Mastroianni the stranger she meets on a bridge. But there is another character whose influence will affect their lives, played by Jean Marais.

Italian neorealism is the type of film style Visconti utilizes in this film. This new realism mixed aspects of  realism with an elegant dreamlike style, but is filmed intending to depict St Petersburg Russia’s  lower socio economic locales, even though it is clearly Italian. The film appears more like a play, minimalist in mise en scene and the film appears to be on a set, but we see the areas as dull and poor, with stray dogs loose and people living on the street. In the film, the two main characters are a lowly clerk and a young woman who lives with her blind grandmother and repairs rugs. The director “bridges” the two worlds with the use of a real bridge between seeming reality and fantasy. The lighting is ethereal and the scenery harsh, much like the lives of its inhabitants. The area is depicted as rough and the characters seedy and gang-like.

The interaction between the main characters appears to be almost dreamlike, the girl Natalia beautiful and mysterious. The man, who is clearly smitten with her, ignores the advances of other women as he is intrigued by this lovely lady, who is an enigma. After Natalia tells her story, which is done in retrospect, there is a camaraderie that turns into a kind of confusing love triangle between the two friends, and the mysterious “other” who has disappeared for a year, giving no reason behind his actions. One critic mentioned that: “The film is not so much a straightforward narrative as it is a meditation on the act of being in love, and the consequences of unrequited passion coupled with senseless devotion.” This is a good analogy of the film in that it reminds us how love can blind us and make us do things that do not seem to be reasonable. But there is no reason in all the characters actions, not just the two main characters. If the movie resembles the line between reality and fantasy, we are in the midst of the dream and it will soon become a nightmare for our heroic male lead.

Existentialist ideas describe the nature of human experience in an unfathomable world, a world that only makes sense to a person subscribing to this philosophical ideal by the idea that meaning is life. In this film, we learn in the final scene that happiness, which is so elusive for many, was attained by the man, if even for the short duration of the relationship. We sense that this man may never be happy again, if it is dependent on the fragile position of unrequited love. Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 treatise Being and Nothingness wrote that “man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.” Tragedy therefore appears to be the flip side to a destiny filled with the search for destiny in this man’s world. These two worlds, separated by a bridge, once again offers the viewer a sense that we are all truly alone in the world, at least  until we realize our existence depends upon the meaning we make in our own life and how we view our own experiences in it.

One of the most explicitly steamy scenes in the movie takes place in the bar where the characters encounter a dance scene that is explosively sexual. The tension does not seem to disturb the characters sensibilities however as they appear to be comfortable with each other in the midst of this action, and later closer dance positions. It seems the characters work through their feelings in a mature and loving manner, smiling and laughing even as they work out the details of their future together. When returning to “reality” they encounter the distant lover, one with whom no real intimacy has occurred, making the viewer wonder which of the partnerships is more appealing, and questioning the appropriateness of the choice Natalia makes.

Finally, the use of snow must be mentioned in this cinematic representation of the nature of love. Snow has always symbolized a cleansing, a new beginning, a kind of covering of the old that lies underneath it. In this film Mario and Natalia take a boat ride to a secluded place that ends up being very crowded. Yet, as they talk, they decide that they will be together. At the same time the snow begins to fall, making them joyfully exuberant. The boat, which is on the water (emotions) cleanses the couple anew and in European symbolism, snowdrops represent purity, humility and hope. The hope is dashed soon after the couple return to land, but for the few moments they were floating on the water, life held a whole new beginning that “died” as soon as the snow stopped falling.





Whose Life is it Anyway? 1981

Whose Life is it Anyway?

Watching this movie some 31 years after watching it the first time gave me another look on the subject of reason, life and our ability to make our own decisions about our lives. At the time the film was made, euthanasia was something no one would believe would be accepted in our society. And while this movie does not support the idea of physician assisted suicide, it does offer the viewer a perspective on making a decision about their own life that has transformed into a right to die issue over the past 35 years since it came out. I must mention that while watching the movie, the things that were shown were tremendously “dated” and unacceptable in our 2012 world! Watching doctors smoke cigarettes, for example, in the lunch room was a total shock to me, even though when I watched this in 1981, it did not faze me at all!

Existentially speaking, this movie asks us to examine a meaningless existence, one that has been irreparably altered by a terrible car accident. Prior to the accident, we learn that the protagonist is an accomplished sculpture whose life is filled with creativity and an intense love relationship. After the accident, we learn this man will never again be able to create anything, as his life as a quadriplegic makes him a complete puppet in the hands of well -meaning health care workers at a hospital. Nietzsche said that “Life has no meaning except that which stands under the domination of purpose” (Schlick 63). If one’s life is suddenly altered to just be alive and unable to therefore have a purpose, then should not a man be allowed to leave this life upon his reflection and choosing? According to character Ken Harrison, his life is tortuous because even though is mind is active and able to consider his life, he can no longer do that which brings him meaning, and in fact suffers from the ability to do any other thing, due to the limitations of his disability.

The idea that most of us lead lives of quiet desperation whereby we struggle with finding our purpose when we have all the physical capabilities intact, so how could one with so many limitations find solace in his or her own life within that paradigm? Schlick mentions that : “For mere living, pure existence as such is certainly valueless, it must also have content and in that can only the meaning of life reside” (Schlick 63). In the movie, our protagonist appears to be not only intelligent and witty he also comes across as upbeat and with a zest for life. One gets the impression in the beginning that he will eventually get physical therapy and then be back to his former self. It is only when he learns his fate that his desire to remain alive with only his mental faculties useful to him that he claims he is already dead and wishes to move along to escape his “life sentence”.

One of the components of existentialism is an emphasis on the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe and Ken Harrison’s universe became a hostile environment the minute he lost his ability to manipulate his body. In his bold action to have a judge allow him to leave the hospital and stop his medical treatment, Ken’s world then became one in which he could control once again. Society viewed this as something odd and many fought him on his decision, not because they wished to be cruel, but because they knew their lives would be impacted by his decision to die.

According to IMDB, Richard Dreyfuss who played the part of Ken Harrison has no memory of making this film due to heavy drug use at the time of filming. This fact seems to oddly typify the behavior of an absurdist, both in and outside of the film. Absurdism, so named by Albert Camus in his work “The Myth of Sisyphus” is described by the Greek Mythic analogy to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it. I find it odd that both Dreyfuss through his altered state, and his character Harrison, appear to be living pointless existences inside and outside of the movie. Dreyfuss could not complete a day’s work in the movie without having to leave to rest, and yet most of the movie he is in a bed and cannot move.

Another scene involves the death of a man of 56 years old and who is examined as a cadaver by some medical students. One of the students yawns, probably due to his hectic schedule as an intern, but who is condemned by the lead doctor for not being bothered enough at the loss of life before him. Themes of existence appear to remind us of the importance of the Hippocratic oath which says “first do no harm”. Man’s thinking nature is played out in the philosophical ideal that believes in the theory that each part of the wheel is important to the whole and without even one lug nut present, a wheel does not work as effectively in moving the car (life) forward.


Schlick, Morris. “On the Meaning of Life” Klemke and Cahn A Reader. 2008 Oxford Press.