Lawrence Russell

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) dir. Vittorio De Sica, writ. Ugo Pirro & Vittorio Bonicelli (from the novel by Giorgio Bassini), cine. Ennio Guarnieri, edt. Adriana Novelli, music Manuel De Sica

star. Lino Capolicchio (Giorgio), Dominique Sanda (Micol), Helmut Berger (Alberto), Fabio Testi (Malnate), Romolo Valli, Camillo Cesarei, et. al.

Columbia Tristar/Sony Picture Classics

Summer, 1938. Ferraro, a town mid-way between Venice and Bologna, perhaps best-known as a former duchy of the Borgias. A group of young Italians have just been invited to a tennis tournament in the splendiferous walled garden estate of the Finzi-Continis, a family of reclusive Jewish patricians.

As the group waits for the gate to be opened, the question of why they have suddenly been honored with this invitation comes up. "We can thank our Fascists for the privilege," says one. In fact, Micol Finzi-Continis and her brother Alberto have just been expelled by the local Tennis Club. But these competing agendas seem like minor social politics as the group cycles leisurely along the meandering avenue below the ancient trees. They're young, beautiful, dressed in tennis white, laughing and chattering as they ride their black Italian bicycles... except for one, whose bicycle is red. This is Malnate, a university friend of Alberto Finzi-Continis, now living in town as an industrial manager. You soon learn that he considers himself a communist.

The centre-piece of the action is really the imagined romance between Micol and Giorgio, a childhood friend who lives just down the street, a young Jewish man with poetic aspirations also in the process of completing his degree. Giorgio's family is also wealthy but not on intimate terms with the Finzi-Continis. As his father bitterly sees it, "They basically welcome the anti-Semitic laws... with their broad smiles, low bows... and the garden finally opened to everyone... converted into a ghetto under their noble patronage." A merchant, he's also a member of the Fascist Party, and stubbornly believes that Mussolini is no Adolf Hitler. Initially, you think he's deluded, although it gradually becomes obvious his actions are defensive, and he has clear insight into his son's abortive romance and the deteriorating situation that it ironically mirrors.

Giorgio seems tight with Micol. Everyone expects them to get engaged, although their contact has been sporadic as she has been studying in Venice. She sits on the handlebars of his bike, they tour the garden, get reacquainted. She points to a tree, says, "That plane tree... could've been planted by Lucrezia Borgia. Imagine! It's nearly 500 years old...." This reference to the Borgias is both a clue to the symbolism of the setting and Micol's complex and contradictory personality. She's beautiful, she's clever... and she's cruel. Her thesis, she says, is on the American poet Emily Dickinson, but somehow you know she has more in common with Lucrezia Borgia.

It starts to rain, the tournament suspended as everyone runs off. Micol and Giorgio take shelter in an old building now used to store a car and an old horse carriage, the one she rode in to the synagog with her mother and grandmother in the days of her childhood flirtation with the naive Giorgio. She invites him to sit in the carriage with her. "I feel like I'm a woman," she says, looking him in the eyes. Her pet, a great Dane called Jor, suddenly appears, sticks his face in the open window as if he has been sent by her parents... or their manservant... or her brother... or... who knows? The dog -- who always seems to be where she will be -- becomes symbolism, elusive, part of Micol's mystery.

Impassioned and encouraged, Giorgio puts his hand on Micol's bare thigh... but she rebuffs him, slips out of the carriage, disappears in the rain and the lush blur of Nature in the Finzi-Continis garden. Poor Giorgio! While he can read the signs of the impending diaspora, he simply can't read Micol. In a childhood flashback scene, she invites him to climb into her garden using the "nails" she has inserted into the wall. Still, her rejection seems merely part of the game, and at her invitation, Giorgio calls on her again, only to discover that she has returned to Venice to finish her thesis.

This setback is one of two: Giorgio is told he can no longer use the university library as a consequence of Mussolini's enactment of the anti-Semitic laws. He turns to the Finzi-Continis, is allowed to use their extensive private library. As Micol's father says, "We have everything they have... a bit more selective perhaps." On the desk is a photograph of Micol. Strangely, Giorgio has yet to realize that she's carrying on an affair with Malnate.

Meanwhile her brother Alberto remains secluded in the estate, bedridden and slowly dying of consumption. His condition is a direct barometer of the condition of the Jewish community in Ferrara.

The futility of Giorgio's love for Micol is like the collective futility of his community in its love for Italy... or their religious icons. Within the simplicity of the action, there is a vast complexity of social and psychological politics at play here. The villain is depersonalized, a chimera of crooked hope as represented in propaganda newsreels and disembodied public address broadcasts. You expect a traitor in their midst, a Mussolini in embryo, but de Sica chooses an oblique approach, appealing to the collective guilt of his fellow Italians. The beauty of the "garden" is the beauty of Italy, and the slow movement of evil is like the coming of winter, when the Finzi-Continis estate is invaded by snow, then police, and the family is finally rounded up for deportation.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

The elegance of it all is stunning, like a total eclipse of the sun... and nothing is left but the inhuman symmetry. The camera seems to float in the dazzling diffusions of light, harmonizing with the melancholy score and the intrigues of the doomed. Like an art exhibit, a generation is cancelled to suit a political agenda. Even Malnate, the outspoken Marxist friend of Alberto and Giorgio is killed on the Russian front -- as an Aryan, he was not barred from the armed forces like his Jewish friends. Oddly, everyone looks Aryan, the exclusivity of their pale bourgeois complexions oddly in harmony with the fascist racial ideal.

De Sica's films have always dealt with human isolation, and the agony of withdrawal. In Umberto D. a retired veteran and civil servant is forced into poverty and homelessness within Il Duce's fascist society. In Two Women a mother and daughter are forced to flee Rome and wander the countryside as refugees. False paternalism and the victimization of the innocent are his recurrent themes. Like Pirandello, his situations appear simple, yet contain a complexity of symbolisms that are both supernatural and political, sexual and cultural, tragic and comic.

There's always hope within a De Sica situation, an appreciation of the cyclical nature of human affairs. Giorgio may have lost in love, but it's just possible that he escapes to live another day. As his father says to him (about his rejection by Micol), "In life... to understand the world, you must die at least once. So it's better to die young when there's still time to recover and live again...." You know he's speaking from experience when he retires to his room alone... and you know, too, that he's anticipating the future.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was awarded the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film in 1971. De Sica would only make one more film, The Voyage, released in 1973.

© LR 6/2001


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