28 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 19, White Nights, by Luchino Visconti

Mario: Go to him. Go to him. don't be sorry. I . . . I was wrong to try to make you doubt. Go to him. And God bless you for the moment of happiness that you've given me. It's not a little thing. Even in a whole lifetime. . . 

Based on Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name, White Nights tells the story of Mario, a loner who falls in love with Natalia, a sensitive, isolated young woman in an anonymous town. He first meets her as she seems to be contemplating suicide. He finds out that she met and fell in love with a man who took lodgings with her and her blind grandmother. The lodger captured her heart, but left a year before, with no word and without ever contacting her since.

Mario begins to fall in love with the beautiful, shy and innocent girl. She pulls a "let's just be friends" number on him, because her heart still belongs to the lodger. He grudgingly accepts this status, but he works as much as he can to change her affections.  Natalia gives Mario a letter to deliver to the lodger, to let him know she's still waiting for him and still loves him. After a struggle, Mario tosses the letter in a canal and tries to forget Natalia. He runs into the next night, though, as she waits, filled with hope, for the lodger to meet her.

This is too much for Mario, who takes her under his wing, dances with her, gets into trouble, and finally seems to win her heart in a beautiful scene filled with snow and poetry. But, who should show up? The lodger himself. Natalia has the joyous reunion she'd prayed for. Mario's left in the cold.

Yeah, pretty corny stuff, I admit. It has a plot line that is, frankly, ridiculous. A girl waits for a year for a guy with no word? No hope? Not a hint? And the man left her for no real reason, and still even lives in the same town. Yet, the lodger shows up by a ludicrous coincidence at Just The Right Moment. (Are we more cyncial now, or did that happen in the 19th century? Does it still happen now, or are we too stupid and blind to recognize it when it happens, or do we slap a pop psych label on that emotion and ignore it? Are we smaller people, was literature more false, or are our lives smaller, more niggling, and more petty than before?)

Even though White Nights may  make no real sense rationally, it slays you emotionally. It's told from Mario's point of view. Lonely. Bored. A bit maladroit, socially, not at all smooth with other people.  If you've ever wandered alone through a city, you know right away how he feels, even down to the hope of meeting that mysterious, beautiful Other.

And when you've met that person, it's amazing how clumsy you can be, how turned around inside while you're faking a smooth act on the outside -- how conflicted between trying to use stratagems to seduce her and overwhelmed by your emotions and your own need for her underneath. And how oblivious, mysterious, scattered that other person can be to all our schemes, hopes and feelings. And how filled in inchoate yearnings, and how that can make you act in all sorts of ways you know aren't. . . you, the daylight you, anyway.

So it works despite the clumsy plot conventions, because it is finally about characters and the relationship between them and the utter sorrow that comes with them. As well as the chance for nobility and right action in the face of that. Mario moves from being a common fellow into a true hero. That it's through suffering, just makes it Dostoyevskian, and perhaps a bit suspect, but damn, you feel its truth down in your marrow.

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