Thursday, September 1, 2011

Doomed Idyll

Film: Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis)
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

The most filmed historical event may well be the Holocaust. I have no proof of this, but based on the number of Holocaust films or Holocaust-related films I have seen in the last 20 months alone, it’s a topic that filmmakers like to visit and revisit. It certainly makes sense. There’s inherent drama at the highest and most intense level, tremendous potential for pathos, and even a guaranteed sense of sympathy from the audience. Unless you are an emotional stone…or a skinhead…you can’t help but feel for the people for whom the world has become a terrible place.

And so we get Vittorio De Sica’s entry into the field of oppressed Judaism in the form of Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis). What’s interesting here is that De Sica doesn’t come at this from the normal point of view and does not present us with a typical story. Instead, we get (naturally) the Finzi-Contini family, who have more money and idle time than they know what to do with. But, the Finzi-Continis are Jewish, which means the Final Solution will touch them eventually, and will touch them hard.

We start with rounds of tennis hosted by Alberto (Helmut Berger) and Micol (Dominique Sanda), the Finzi-Contini children, who are hosting this tennis party in their expansive, eponymous garden. The reason for this is that they have essentially been banned from the Ferrara tennis club because they are Jewish, and thus the tennis party must be at their estate. Also present is Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a childhood friend from a middle-class Jewish family. It’s evident that Giorgio is madly in love with Micol, and equally obvious that this love is not particularly returned, or not returned in the same way.

What’s interesting here is that there are several stories going on at the same time, but all essentially express the same type of tension. The love story, or rather the lack-of love story between Giorgio and Micol often takes center stage here. Micol is frequently seductive around Giorgio, but constantly pushes him away, in no small part because she claims to view him more as a brother than as a potential lover.

At the same time, we see a similar tension between the aristocratic Finzi-Continis and the middle-class Jewish families, particularly Giorgio’s. Giorgio’s father (Romolo Valli) is particularly suspicious of the Finzi-Continis, wishing his son would not spend so much time with them. They are, for lack of a better way to put it, not in the same social class, a fact that is of great concern to the man. And yet just as Giorgio is helplessly pulled toward Micol, he is also pulled toward the social standing that the Finzi-Continis represent.

There is a real parallel here with the aristocracy’s relationship to the growing tide of fascism, both in Italy and in Europe at large at this point. Early in the film, Micol comments that everyone will soon have to learn German, and she sometimes peppers her speech with German words. Giorgio’s father in particular is given to the idea of appeasement, submitting to each new anti-Semitic decree with a resigned shrug and the rationalization that at least things haven’t gotten so bad that he can’t leave his house. He recognizes that he is a third-class citizen in the new regime of Il Duce, but that at least he is still a citizen.

And then there is Alberto, who early in the film stops leaving the estate, preferring to live his life entirely behind the large walls that separate the family estate from the outside world. In essence, he blocks himself off from the reality of what the world is and what it is becoming, remaining in an idyllic world of tennis and friends and the family garden rather than truly exposing himself to the mounting terror outside the walls. This tendency to keep himself both safe and willfully deluded is assisted greatly by the fact that Alberto is sickly, and is frequently too ill to even get out of bed.

It’s the unrequited love story that is in many ways the most interesting here, because it seems to serve as a metaphor for everything else going on. At one point, still obsessed with Micol, Giorgio sees her post-coital with Bruno Malnate (Fabio Testi), a gentile friend who she previously disregarded as too crude and too much the socialist for her. But even with his socialist tendencies, Malnate is far closer to the Aryan ideal, and poor Giorgio is forced to watch this stand-in for fascism essentially mating with the flower of Italian Jewish aristocracy. While it doesn’t go so far as to say that the Jewish aristocracy was complicit with the fascists (although one character does say it about the Finzi-Continis at one point), it certainly points in that direction.

This is a fascinating film. It lacks the power of De Sica’s earlier Ladri di Biciclette, but it is far more expertly filmed. And it ends at the right time. We are forced to confront what we know will happen without being forced to see it. What we assume is always worse and more tragic than what we are shown, and it was a good choice here.

Why to watch Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini: It’s both idyllic and terrible.
Why not to watch: How many Holocaust stories do you need?


  1. I found The Garden of the Finzi-Continis on YouTube, but there were no English sub-titles as an option. So I watched it with the Italian closed captions. I was under the impression that the Fascists rounded up the Finzi-Continis because they were monopolizing the nation's bicycles. Once the notorious bicycle-hoarding Finzi-Continis were interred, other Italians were able to know the joys of bicycle riding.

    I'm thinking that perhaps I will keep my eyes open so I can watch this with an English option for a more clear appreciation of DeSica's vision, especially considering how much I love Umberto D.

    1. Well, I can't speak for your library system, but that's where I found my copy.

  2. That scene where the family is separated and let into different classrooms is quite devastating, as if they were gas chambers.
    Expertly filmed, that it certainly is.

    1. It's interesting--as de Sica got bigger budgets and more skill, he seemed to have less heart in his stories.