Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, stately drama The Garden of the Finzi-Continis explores tensions among wealthy Italian Jews during the run-up to World War II, when Benito Mussolini escalated an ethnic-cleansing campaign in lockstep with the anti-Semitic purge wrought by the Nazis in Germany. Adapted from a novel by Giorgio Bassani and directed with rarified style by Vittorio De Sica, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a melodrama with a social purpose, so every scene of interpersonal friction and romantic strife is shot through with foreshadowing. Some characters see where things are headed while others play ostrich, so viewers get a close view at what happens when citizens rebel against totalitarianism and what happens when citizens spend too long ignoring the storm clouds gathering overhead. Many, many films explore similar terrain, and some—notably Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972)—inject the American perspective for a broader geopolitical view. Perhaps because of its narrow focus on the moneyed class, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis lacks gut-punch impact. Nonetheless, the question of how societies allow demagogues to gain power is one of timeless importance, and De Sica dramatizes issues with intelligence and precision.
At the beginning of the story, young adults from throughout the city of Ferrara meet in the sprawling private estate of the Finzi-Contini family for leisurely games of tennis. (Among the story’s central metaphors is the notion of a walled-in compound as a island of tolerance in a sea of hateful madness; it’s the familiar binary argument of involvement versus isolation.) Though he inhabits a slightly lower social station, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio) is in love with Micòl (Dominique Sanda), eldest daughter of the Finzi-Contini family and also his friend since childhood. Yet she’s drawn the handsome and politically expedient Malnate (Fabio Testi), and the situation is complicated by Micòl’s concern for her frail brother, Alberto (Helmut Berger), another childhood friend of Giorgio’s. Adding more layers to the narrative are scenes set in Giorgio’s home, since his father (Romolo Valli) champions Mussolini. In fact, the father joins the Fascist Party, somehow believing he can stop the spread of anti-Semitism from within the political machine.
Those with a strong grasp of world history will get more from The Garden of the Finzi-Continis than others, since the movie’s philosophical debates occur on an elevated plane. Similarly, the narrative’s symbolism is intricate and subtle, so those looking to be lead by the hand toward one viewpoint or another will be lost. The broad strokes are plainly evident, but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis explores incremental differences between people who share many common values, rather than outright conflict between oceans-apart enemies. Undoubtedly, that’s why the picture enjoys its enviable reputation. By surgically extracting a sample of diseased tissue, De Sica and his collaborators explore something even more troubling than the rise of tyrants—the ease with which tyrants can seize control while those with the most cultural and economic influence are distracted by petty strife.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: GROOVY