The fifth magnum opus by Luchino Visconti, Le Notti Bianche based on a short novel by Dostoevsky is undoubtedly an experience that is not easily forgotten. The original story written in Russian is taking place in St Petersburg during the ‘White Nights’ or a brief period of just over a months from the end of May to the end of June, which is famous for its highly unusual and indeed very romantic light and almost no darkness at all due to a special northerly position of St Petersburt at the 60th parallel north. Featuring Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Shell and Jean Marais and filmed by a celebrated cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno this film presents a true feast of a visual experience. I would argue that photography plays a central role here. Rotunno’s camera managed to recreate an impression of rivers and canals of St Petersburg, inspired by two gems of European architecture, Amsterdam and Venice, entirely in a pavilion setting, using high contrast film and beautiful lighting. Rotunno continued to work with Visconti on ‘Rocco and His Brothers’ (1960), Visconiti’s short ‘Il Lavoro’ in Bocaccio’70, and ‘Il Gattopardo’ (1963) and later worked with such iconic figures as Fellini and De Sica. If you cannot read Russian the film is as close as it gets to the subtle, perhaps a little bit naive but nevertherless very poetic story of a love affair between a young girl and a man she accidentally meets. The film could definitely be considered one of the most beautiful ever made both from the point of view of acting and cinematography. Depending where you are in the world, you would be either looking for a Criterion Collection or a Janus Film version or the version I found on Amazon.
When asked about his most significant experience as a cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotuno replied: ‘The photography of the film Le notti bianche by Luchino Visconti, based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, constituted an important stage in my development with regard to telling stories with light.
The photography of this film, which was always halfway between the real and the unreal, reality and fantasy, and the expressive dimension of cinema and that of theatre, was at one with the direction, scene after scene. In his remarkable career, Visconti alternated great theatrical works with great movies, giving the theatre the cinema’s expressive potential, and vice versa; in fact, the visual theme of the story of Le notti bianche, devised by Visconti, embraced the two ways of telling a story to which he dedicated, throughout his life, tremendous energy, talent, professionalism, and all his sensibility.
Which scene from this movie do I choose as the most important? Every atmosphere created by the light strengthens the other emotively, but this is perhaps most evident in the scene in which Mario helps Natalia to write a letter to her grandmother’s tenant. The two of them are sitting at a café table and, as the scene progresses, a mist slowly appears, thickening, almost imperceptibly, at certain moments.
The graduated light from specially-built Dimmers, controlled from a keyboard, was projected onto large lengths of gauze hanging from the beams in the studio and reaching to the ground, which divided the set into sections, leaving only enough space for the characters, who followed pre-established routes, to emerge from and disappear into the mist at the required distance’ (Giuseppe Rotunno, The image of cinema in the light of experience).
Source: Giuseppe Rotunno, The image of cinema in the light of experience, Interview by Alessandro Gatti(translate by Susan Ann White), http://www.aicine.it/rotunno_eng.html