Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

A film review by Steve Rhodes

RATING (0 TO ****): *** 1/2

This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the widely praised THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS. Director Vittorio De Sica won the 1971 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his depiction of fascism and romance in Italy.

If you think you've seen this material covered before in innumerable other films, you haven't. THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS looks at both of its subjects from overlooked perspectives.

For the anniversary, Sony Pictures Classics is releasing to the theaters a beautifully restored print with a new Dolby Stereo sound track. In the press kit they gave me, they cite twenty-six international awards the film won at the time. I could not find a single problem with the print unlike some other recent restorations I have seen. Since the images are central to this film's effectiveness, the restoration is an important part of what I hope will be a successful rerun.

Simply stated, THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS is a dream. Not a dream in any conventional sense, but a dream nevertheless. It is set in Italy just before and during the start of World War II. The aristocratic Jewish families in the story live in a dream world believing fascism will leave their plush existence untouched.

The young Jewish people in the story are full of illusions about romantic love. This causes them almost as much pain as their denial of the consequences of fascism. The whole texture of the film is ethereal, and the lush cinematography by Ennio Guarnieri uses a soft haze to enhance the mood.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Giorgio Bassani, the story starts in 1938 when Mussolini's racial laws are beginning to take force. Like similar ones of his Nazi brethren, his laws start to clamp down on the rights of people of Jewish lineage. The proscribed list includes no servants, no phone listings, no library privileges, no public schools, and no obituaries. And it goes on and on.

As the show opens, however, the law's harshness seems irrelevant to our protagonists. Biking through spectacular scenery, a group of affluent college students is the embodiment of serenity. Their solid white tennis clothing shines in the slightly overexposed images. Backed by the green of the forest about them, they appear as deities.

As they make small talk at their tennis club, they are as innocent as forest nymphs. Their superrich existence must be forever secure. The luxurious sets by Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni and Mario Chiari show their castles and large homes to be magnificently appointed.

Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio) talks to his father about the troubles starting to affect them. His father (Romolo Valli) begins to worry that even though he is a Fascist member in good standing, he may not be able to escape the evil net that is engulfing others.

A second aspect of the story starts with the blossoming of a romance between Giorgio and his now grown up childhood sweetheart Micol Finzi-Contini (the gorgeous Dominique Sanda). Micol is a member of a Jewish family even richer than his own.

After a sudden rainstorm, they find themselves alone. Her blouse has become see-through, and naturally, his heart turns to love. "Children are always prisoners of grownups," she remarks about how she has now broken the shackles of her parent's control. He figures that this is his opening, but it is not to be. She is an ice goddess to him, which drives him crazy. The scene, which happens in a carriage, is a forerunner to the one in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993).

Like the Christmas glass ball with the idyllic snow crusted cottage inside, their world is picture perfect. The troubles around it continue as nothing more than mirages to them. Surprisingly, most of the show takes place before there are any major fissures in the ball. Certainly the rich and respected Prof. Ermanno Finzi-Contini (Camillo Angelini-Rota) and his family are safe from the tyranny on the streets. Indeed, when Giorgio begins to be shunned, the Finzi-Contini retain most of their privileges, and Micol continues playing tennis with her Aryan friends.

Even as the whole world begins to collapse, it is no one's fault. As the director of the library explains to Giorgio when he tosses him out, it is not up to him. He is just following the rules somebody else devised.

This is not a perfect show. For one, by today's standards it seems curiously dated at times. For another, there are some hard to believe sequences.

Micol says she views Giorgio like her brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) and has no interest in having any romantic attachment to him. Where does she say this? She has her servant bring Giorgio to her bed when she is lying in her nightgown and partially under the covers. She is stunning in this setting. This incongruity perplexes Giorgio and me. His reaction is probably what mine would have been.

The music by Bill Conti (THE RIGHT STUFF) and Manuel De Sica is worth the effort put into its restoration. It takes the audience on a journey from romantic to bittersweet to tragic and finally, to hopeless sad.

In MACBETH Malcolm says, "nothing in his life became him like the leaving it." So it is with the wealthy Jews in the movie. They line up politely to go to their slaughter with all the sophistication of their upbringing. A simple and beautiful, but completely tragic ending.

THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS runs just 1:34. It is in Italian with English subtitles. In 1970, the picture was rated R, but today it would get a PG-13. There is no sex, bad language, or violence. There is only two brief scenes of partial female nudity. This year's THE NUTTY PROFESSOR got a PG-13, and this show is a hundred times tamer. This film would be fine for kids say ten and up. I strongly recommend the movie to you and give it *** 1/2. To be honest, if I had not considered when the film was made, I would have given it a half star less. Perhaps some of its approaches do seem dated, but the show is full of simple truths and great beauty.

**** = One of the top few films of this or any year.  A must see film.
***  = Excellent show.  Look for it.
**   = Average movie.  Kind of enjoyable.
*    = Poor show.  Don't waste your money.
0    = One of the worst films of this or any year.  Totally unbearable. 

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http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/finzi-contini.html - - - Last modified: Friday, 06-Aug-2004 09:19:17 EDT