“His Finzi-Continis, set in the years 1938 to 1943, is an autumnal work in two senses – the subject is the last golden flash of freedom before one of history’s major tragedies, and it represents de Sica’s final great work . . .”
Serious readers were shocked in 1971 when Vittorio de Sica announced he had finally (after ten years of trying) obtained financing to adapt Giorgio Bassani’s well-regarded novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis for the screen. It wasn’t just the usual carping that surrounds any cinematic conversion of a beloved literary work. De Sica himself was considered highly problematic. Once a star of the Italian neo-realist movement, with major achievements like The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D (1952), by the 1960s he had been written off as a lightweight, incapable of anything more substantial than brittle bedroom farces like Marriage Italian Style (1964).
Few were prepared, then, for de Sica’s brilliant return to form. His Finzi-Continis, set in the years 1938 to 1943, is an autumnal work in two senses – the subject is the last golden flash of freedom before one of history’s major tragedies, and it represents de Sica’s final great work (he made three lesser films after it and died in 1974).
The title refers to the vast, walled grounds adjacent to the mansion of a family of wealthy, reclusive Jews in Ferrara, Italy, as Fascism begins to overtake the country. This is a kind of sacred space of innocence, affluence, and protected pleasure that safeguards the last of the Finzi-Continis line, Micòl (Dominique Sanda) and Alberto (Helmut Berger), from the increasingly grim developments outside. We see them as both youngsters and young adults in the film’s mix of flashbacks and the present.
The Finzi-Continis are admired and envied by the townspeople. Middle-class Jews like the family of Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio) can hardly believe they’re Jews – perhaps because of their worldliness and detachment. Giorgio is one of the few invited into the garden and the mansion, where Micòl and Alberto play tennis, dance, and listen to Scarlatti and Fats Waller. Giorgio is in love with Micòl, but she seems capricious, distracted by a variety of amorous intrigues and a perhaps too-close relationship with her brother. Alberto appears to be in love with another frequent visitor to the garden, the ruggedly handsome Malnate (Fabio Testi), who indulges Alberto’s desperate friendship while having an affair with Micòl.[PIC: Continis-2shot guys]The film contrasts the seeming frivolity and indulgences of life at the Finzi-Continis with the methodical assault on the rights of Ferrara’s Jews who live in less sacred spaces. Giorgio is a gifted scholar, but he’s turned out of school for the “crime” of Jewishness. One of his friends is taken away, significantly, in a movie theatre, where the “escapism” of cinema offers no escape. Just as it provided Giorgio with a romance (however frustrated) in the form of Micòl, the house of the Finzi-Continis opens its library so he can continue his studies. But most of the townspeople are enthusiastic supporters of “Il Duce” and Giorgio has little chance to survive, much less study and flourish, unless he leaves. The film gathers its young people for their pleasures in the garden, then slowly disperses them to their doom.
De Sica returned to his neo-realist roots here, with only five of the actors professionals and the rest chosen from amateurs from Ferrara and elsewhere in Italy. The film was shot on location in the city in which it’s set. On the other hand, the stark black-and-white of his early work is transformed here into luminous pastels that capture the fleeting, dreamlike existence of the Finzi-Continis.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, recently restored, is a subtle study of the collapse of the spirit in the face of intolerable historical forces. For Giorgio, the film’s narrator and central voice, Micòl is an ideal that remains always somehow out of reach, just as the ideal of the garden remains, to the Finzi-Continis, their guests, and the viewer, out of reach.