Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti has made a career of successfully adapting literary classics. 1963 saw the release of his version of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Sicilian novel, The Leopard. In 1971 Visconti tackled the controversial material of Thomas Mann’s classic novella, Death in Venice. But in 1957, before those two big films, Visconti adapted ‘White Nights,’ a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, under the Italian title Le notti bianche, to stunning results.
Visconti’s adaptation, available thanks to those DVD gods at the Criterion Collection, was a somewhat risky endeavor. The original story takes place in St. Petersburg, under the banners of the city’s famed white nights. Visconti transplanted the story to a uniform city in Italy, where, needless to say, white nights simply don’t occur.
Anyone who has read the original short story knows the symbolic importance that the white nights play. The unreal, fantastical element of such natural (as in, from Nature) phenomena adds to the unreal, fantastical chance of romance between Dostoyevsky’s two main characters. Was Visconti able to project those same elements without St. Petersburg in the background?
Rather than film on location, Visconti shot his film at Cinecittà Studios. The elaborate sets were composites of everything that made up an Italy city at that time: the classical architecture of Naples, the canals, bridged walkways and labyrinthine alleys of Venice, and the decay of postwar Rome, disintegrating to make way for a new future of modernity. Visconti’s crew even hung large rolls of tulle in the background, illuminated from behind by lamps, to create the misty quality of Visconti’s own white nights.
These sets were at once lifelike and artificial, possessing at times such depth that your wandering eye would get caught scanning the rooftops of Visconti’s fake city, while his two main characters remained stuck in the foreground, dreaming of a way out.