The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis (Il giardino dei Finzi Contini)

Italy (1970) Dir. Vittorio De Sica

The last major success for the Godfather of Neo Realism cinema Vittorio De Sica is an adaptation of the 1962 novel by Giorgio Bassani, part of his highly regarded series exploring the lives of Italian Jews in Ferrara, northern Italy, although one would barely recognise it as a De Sica film.

Set between 1938 and 1943, the eponymous Finzi-Continis are an affluent aristocratic family who, while known to everyone in the neighbourhood and hardly reclusive, prefer to keep themselves hidden away behind the walls of their impressively large grounds. They are also Jewish but seem oblivious to the anti-Semitic persecution on the rise under the fascist regime of Mussolini, since they have everything they want in their stately home.

With greater public access restrictions on the Jewish, the two adult children of the household, Alberto (Helmut Berger) and Micol (Dominique Sanda) invite their friends to play tennis on their courts. Among them is middle-classed childhood friend Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), who has been in love with Micol since the early days, and Bruno (Fabio Testi) a close friend of the ailing Alberto, whom Micol claims to despise for his leftist leanings but desires him over Giorgio.

Yes, there is a love triangle at the centre of this film but the true meat of the matter is the rise in the Fascist control in Italy, which eventually saw them dragged into World War II. For the Jewish community in Italy their problems are just beginning as Mussolini gradually revokes many of the freedoms they had enjoyed right up until the start of the war when they were rounded up and hauled off to concentration camps.

Many films have been made on this subject but this story doesn’t use it as a focal point for 90 minutes of engendering easy sympathy from the audience – instead it is the fact that it is looming over which is the real terror, something Giorgio learns about during a trip to visit his brother Ernesto (Raffaele Curi) in France he meets a survivor from one of the concentration camps.

De Sica’s renown for addressing social issues which drove his earlier films is satisfied by the theme of the wealthy believing their money and status offers them invincibility from the same treatment as the “ordinary folk”. This is what Micol represents the most of the Finzi-Continis with her capricious and selfish actions. She knows Giorgio is obsessed with her and teases him mercilessly, denying him any reciprocation at the last moment.

Micol may not be completely totemic of the whole family but this apple doesn’t seem to have fallen too far from the tree; because of their immense wealth and embracing of the bourgeois lifestyle, they are deemed “barely Jewish” by their fellow Semites. Whatever is occurring outside of their mighty walls doesn’t seem to concern them which unfortunately for them is to prove their downfall.

Conversely, Giorgio’s comings and goings act as a barometer for the seriousness of the plight of the Jewish community. He is constantly arguing with his party member father (Romolo Valli) who tries to turn a blind eye to the tightening noose around their necks (“Italian Fascism is better than Nazism”) until more restrictions are decreed which directly affect them. They don’t have the wealth of the Finzi-Continis but live comfortably enough and ignore the stories Giorgio has to tell when returning from France.

Usually De Sica isn’t this subtle with his story telling, laying everything out before us and allowing us to soak up the raw emotion but times have changed since the days of his early seminal works, and audiences were more sophisticated and demanding. By the 1960’s De Sica himself had shifted from his Neo-Realism style to more direct dramas and with the arrival of the 70’s he had embraced the more artistic approach of the time.

Flashbacks appear without warning even if they are congruent to the plot at the time, and the editing is much sharper and abrupt then before, making time shifts difficult to keep up, save for any exposition shared via the dialogue. But the solid 90 minute run time necessitates this quick moving style to disguise how economic this film really is, yet leaves a mark as a short sharp punch.

This is embodied by the final scene in which the inevitable occurs for the titular family and by using simple imagery and a haunting soundtrack (composed by De Sica’s son Manuel) the effect of impending fate feels startling real. De Sica also employs the soft focus whenever Micol is on screen to highlight how she is an unattainable dream and nightmare for poor Giorgio.

In her first Italian feature French actress Dominique Sanda has that striking ethereal quality about with her blonde hair and soft welcoming looks which you know hide a mischievous edge. Sanda skilfully controls her character through the shifts in personality from coquettish little girl to cynical vamp without making Micol seem schizophrenic.

Lino Capolicchio looks every inch the bookish, nervy Giorgio, a young man with his eyes open to the horrors of the world for the Jewish community yet is blind to the games Micol is playing with him. The other stand outs are Romolo Valli as Giorgio’s family, a man whose naïve faith in the status quo is betrayed and Helmut Berger as the sickly Alberto.

The vibrancy of the imagery and photography may offset the bleakness of the story, it also hides the fact that this was a director aware he is in his twilight years. However this film did win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language so De Sica still has some fuel left in the tank.

The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis isn’t as immediate as De Sica’s earlier films and takes a while before the characters and story are fully established. Once it gets going though, there is a hard hitting if subtle tale of the breaking down of social barriers under the most extreme and tragic of circumstances.