THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS (IL GIARDINO DEI FINZI-CONTINI) (Italy,1970) *** 3/4 \
The best film around these days may well be the 27-year old "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," re-released in a beautifully restored print, with updated sound. It was made by Vittorio De Sica, one of a handful of masters of neorealism, the Italian "movement" (in subjects and style) that appeared during World War II and widened incalculably the scope of film.
"The Garden of the Finzi-Continis"" won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1971 and a slew of other honors. It was said to be De Sica's comeback, but he had really never gone away. There was and still is a general misconception that De Sica's star waned after 1953.
There have been so many misapprehensions and hasty judgments about De Sica that a short evaluation is in order.
===========THE FILM REVIEW PROPER CONTINUES AFTER THIS SECTION==========
De Sica started his career as a stage performer. He soon became very popular. He then became also a film actor. From the early 1930s on he was idolized in Italy by the public and the critics. As in the Fascist period the once-great Italian cinema had declined enormously, it is safe to say that De Sica's presence salvaged a big percentage of the 20 or so films he appeared in during the Mussolini era. Some years ago, a retrospective of Italian movies of that era at the Pesaro Festival proved beyond question the importance of De Sica as an actor.
He began directing films in 1939, with good results right away, notably "The Children Are Watching Us" (1942). Soon his lifelong collaborator was Cesare Zavattini. Arguably the best of Italian scriptwriters, he worked on practically all of De Sica's movies. In 1946 began the director's golden neorealist period, with classics like "Shoeshine,"" Bicycle Thieves,"" Miracle in Milan, and "Umberto D."
Between 1953 and 1963 he directed eight films and a very good episode in the omnibus "Boccaccio 70." "Indiscretion of an American Wife" (Stazione Termini) (1953) has its virtues but was hampered by the tug between the director and the producer, and its original release print cut down to 63 minutes. Next, De Sica showed that he had a talent for comedy in the excellent "The Gold of Naples." "The Roof" is a touching return to neorealism. "The Last Judgment," unknown in the US and little-known elsewhere, is very good. The realistic, gripping "Two Women" is a superb drama which won Sophia Loren an Oscar. Two more features, "Anna from Brooklyn" and "Il Boom," hardly circulated in the States, if at all. And I cannot remember clearly "The Condemned of Altona" to give an opinion.
Then came in 1964 the very colorful, funny yet touching "Marriage Italian Style" with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. It won a 1964 Oscar nomination for Loren, and (oddly, in 1965) the nomination for Best Foreign Film, while De Sica's "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," also with Loren-Mastroianni, won the 1964 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Even those movies that, for some viewers, seemed beneath what they expected of De Sica, have more than a few flashes of brilliance. This was confirmed a few years back during a major De Sica retrospective at my favorite film festival, in La Rochelle (France). (La Rochelle has repeatedly opened our eyes to other "auteurs," whether unknowm, little-known , neglected or misunderstood.)
After his Oscar triumphs, De Sica, driven by his need of money, made six (or parts thereof) commercial films in so many years. Three of them, "A Young World," "The Witches" may be unknown in America. "After the Fox" and "Woman Times Seven," are underrated. The very commercial "A Place for Lovers" (Mastroianni and Faye Dunaway " and "Sunflower" (Mastroianni-Loren) are admittedly duds.
A second comeback followed with "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." Finally came his last three works, one good, two excellent, all of a serious nature "A Brief Vacation," "We'll Name Him Andrea" (1972) --sadly not seen in America--and "The Voyage" (1973).
Throughout his life De Sica continued to play in several films. Most were by others. Some he directed himself but he hardly appeared in any of his top works. By my count he was in at least 74 movies, probably more. Both his accepting roles and directing some pictures stemmed from his perpetual need of money. He was a compulsive gambler who kept losing fortunes. In the early 1970s I once sat not far from him in a casino. It was a sad sight.
==================== REVIEW RESUMES ===============
"The Garden" chronicles the years 1938-1943 fitfully and with some clear flashbacks (but has none of the customary dating of World War II's developments), around a wealthy, cultivated and aristocratic Jewish family in Ferrara. Their large, walled-in estate and mansion, open to friends and family, become a gilded ghetto when Mussolini starts his anti-Semitic decrees. At first it's like an avoidance reaction: stay apart and things may improve. This is not stupidity. Jews in other countries were clinging to similar hopes. After all, in places like Germany or Italy so many of them were totally assimilated and respected that it was inconceivable that patriotic people (many had fought bravely for their country in the Great War ) would be treated savagely.
But the measures get nastier: exclusion from clubs, no military service for Jews, no phone directory listings, no obituaries in papers, no non-Jewish servants, no going to schools or public libraries and other places, etc. And World War II is looming. Says main character Giorgio, a son in another Jewish family: "The war will be even harder for us -- the Negroes."
Giorgio's parents are well-to-do Ferrarans. His father is a proud Fascist --until he sees the light. For ten years, Giorgio and the Finzi-Contini daughter Micol, have been best friends. Now grown-up, Giorgio has an unrequited passion for the girl. She would like to keep the camaraderie but love is out of the question. Is there another man? Does cool, elusive, self-possessed Micol have an incestuous relationship (whether in thought or in deed) with her beloved, terminally ill brother Alberto? Is he homosexual? Is it by chance that Micol is reading Jean Cocteau ("he is chic") who deals with both gayness and incest?
The film weaves with skill and pertinence its various elements, reactions, personal relations. Discrimination is mostly dealt with in a low-key fashion, without the shown or verbally described physical brutality of most Holocaust pictures. There are questions and ambivalences yet the whole remains lucid. A major role held by Malnate -- Giorgio's best male friend, a Communist and a non-Jew -- adds veracity and complexity to the story.
The Fascists' anti-Semitic measures may not have been anything like the Nazi ones, and were disapproved by a large number of Italians, but they did exist. There was no deportation of the magnitude in other countries. For example, in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, were concentrated most of the Jews of the country, in a community of at least 60,000. During the Occupation of Greece in World War II, the Nazis deported all of Thessaloniki's Jews to death camps from which an infinitesimally small fraction returned. (Of the few thousands of other Jews living elsewhere in Greece, some, warned by the Thessaloniki disaster, managed to hide. Still, many others were sent to death camps).
But then, the horror of persecution both is and is not a matter of numbers. The focus on the Finzi-Continis makes it come terribly alive. Even if the people in authority, as they herd off the victims, keep saying "Prego" (Please).
Without symbolic obviousness, the film contrasts intelligently changes of seasons, the beauty of nature, young people or old buildings, with the ugliness of the events. Ferrara is not a studio set but the real city. The performers are, in neo-realist fashion, mostly non-professionals except for the headliners: Austrian-born Helmut Berger; the first-rate Lino Capolicchio and Romolo Valli; and Parisian Dominique Sanda. She had already made her mark in three films : by Robert Bresson, Maximilian Schell and especially in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist." The latter plus "The Garden" made her a major star.
This is a film without audience manipulation or pulling of heart-strings. The actors are surprisingly "un-Italian" by not engaging into big, overt emotions, not to mention that wonderful Italian theatricality that would have been out of place here. There are no heroes. We watch the protagonists with their strengths and weaknesses in an almost cerebral fashion as we do the senior, dignified Finns-Contini members. Yet emotion gradually builds up, climaxing with the final off-screen singing of a heart-breaking Kaddish, the Prayer for the Dead.