The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

on November 08, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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   "The Finzi-Continis never leave their kingdom," says one of a dozen tennis-attired youths bicycling on a sunny 1938 afternoon toward the estate of the rich Jewish family outside the Italian town of Ferrara. Inside the walls, the lovely Micol (Dominique Sanda) apologizes for her family's private tennis court, which she offhandedly says "looks like an old potato field" but which remains a sign of the Finzi-Continis' elevated social standing. Director Vittorio De Sica, working from a Ugo Pirro/Vittorio Bonicelli adaptation of Giorgio Bassani's novel, thus quickly establishes what the Finzi-Continis have, and as quickly what becomes at risk: The Fascist government has begun to impose racial restrictions on Jews. The tennis gathering, a sort of impromptu tournament, is being held at home because the Finzi-Continis have been refused further attendance at the local club.
   As the film continues, a second story emerges, moving along with the narrative regarding the increasing limits placed on Jews. Now grown and in love with her, Micol's childhood friend Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), the eldest son of a middle-class Jewish family, exhibits increasing ardency in his physical attentions to her. But she rebuffs him, as when rain interrupts the tennis gathering; a friendly Micol--her breasts revealed through her drenched shirt--takes Giorgio alone into the carriage that once took her to the school they both attended. She wants to talk of past times (for her, he is "the memory of things"); a longing Giorgio moves to embrace her, but Micol douses his ardor. As the next years pass and the country moves into war, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" continues to record particulars of the conflict's sad effect on the town's populace and of Micol's persistent rejection of Giorgio. (She says they are "alike like two drops of water.... It would be like making love to a brother.") Both stories, along with several subplots involving members of the two families, end unhappily.
   Restored on its 25th anniversary for re-release by Sony Classics, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" ("Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini") won considerable acclaim during its original run, even winning that year's Academy Award for best foreign film. The film makes substantial changes to the novel; key among them is a switch from first- to third-person (the moviegoer remains more distanced than the reader) and a much-altered ending. In the book, the final break between Micol and Giorgio closes the story proper; in the film, it is the arrest of the Finzi-Continis by the authorities.
   Both versions are emotionally effective, if only to a point. In the novel, what was the romance of young Giorgio's life becomes only one romance remembered by his older self, and Micol's romantic reluctance, as played by Sanda, bears a come-hither/I-want-to-be-alone contradiction that carries her character toward the shoals of being just a cocktease. In the film, although historically accurate, the incarceration of the Jews by the Italian government seems timid compared to the fate that awaited that people in Hitler's Nazi Germany. When Micol and De Sica's camera look over the Ferrara that had been her city at movie's end, one feels a sort of homesickness of the heart at how sour our world could turn; by comparison, in Sony Classics' recent Holocaust-themed release "Anne Frank Remembers," when 60-year-old found footage reveals the young girl standing at her window, her hair with such simple life tossing as she looks back inside to someone who has called her, it's a moment the heart is not made queasy--the heart breaks. Still, the restrained passion of "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" has an engagingly stately intelligence, and it also boasts an admirably everyday authenticity that makes it one of the most "believable" movies about its times. ("The Stuka--they call it the Victory Plane," says one character, casually reading a magazine.) That combination should prove markedly affecting even a quarter-century later among today's art-house crowd. Starring Dominique Sanda, Lino Capolicchio, Helmut Berger, Fabio Testi and Romolo Valli. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Written by Ugo Pirro and Vittorio Bonicelli. Produced by Gianni Hecht Lucari and Arthur Cohn. A Sony Classics re-release. Drama. Rated R. Italian-language; English subtitles. Running time: 93 min. Original stateside release: 1971. Honors included the best foreign film Oscar and the Berlin fest's Golden Bear
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