When it was first released 35 years ago, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was widely considered a masterpiece. The film won nearly thirty major prizes, including Italy’s David di Donatello prize, the Golden Bear at Berlin, and the Oscar. Doubtless some of this exaggerated praise was due to the film’s unusual treatment of the Holocaust, but an even greater determinant was the fact that its creator, Vittorio De Sica, had once made important neorealist films (Bicycle Thieves, 1948; Umberto D., 1952) but had recently made only trifling diversions, helping the new film to loom large by comparison. This shift in the nature of his films, from serious to commercial, partly derived from the Italian government’s passage of laws in the 1950s prohibiting filmmakers from drawing foreign attention to Italy’s postwar social and economic problems—a development pressured in part by the United States at the behest of its own film industry, which, panic-stricken by what it regarded as the challenge of television, overreacted to the commercial success in the States of such films as Bicycle Thieves and Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice (1949). But De Sica, captivated by the enormous popularity of the trash he had been turning out, also had his own private demons driving him. His first substantial piece of work since the magnificent Two Women (1960), from Moravia, and the far less successful The Condemned of Altona (1962), from Sartre, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis gave him a chance to reclaim his soul as an artist. De Sica: “I am happy that I made [this film] because it brought me back to my old noble intentions. Because, you see, I have been ruined by lack of money. All my good films, which I financed by myself, made nothing. Only my bad films made money. Money has been my ruin.” De Sica declined to call his Garden a masterpiece but accurately adjudged it a good film. It seemed all the better to many of the rest of us for its being his first artistic success in a decade.
The film is based on Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 autobiographical novel. Like the novel, the film is steeped in memory: the memories of a man who escaped Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in time to avoid the fate of other Italian Jews who were rounded up and sent to death camps in 1943. In 1938, the “race laws” were instituted that predicted, perhaps, this tragic end; among other things, they prohibited Jewish intermarriage and barred Jews from public schools and libraries. Obituaries of Jewish people were also declared illegal; in effect, Jewish life and death no longer existed in the eyes of the law. In Ferrara, Giorgio was a bourgeois Jewish boy in love with Michol, a beautiful member of a wealthy, aristocratic Jewish family, the Finzi-Continis, who lived in a grand estate behind a great wall that could not finally protect them from the tumultuous history unfolding outside. Too attached to a family mystique beyond Giorgio’s comprehension, Michol doesn’t reciprocate his love; she loves Giorgio as she might a brother. (The insulation and the inwardness of the Finzi-Continis, by contrast, make Michol’s relationship with her actual brother, Alberto, touchingly—too touchingly—close.) Memory has interpreted this love affair that never really existed in an interesting way; for Giorgio, Michol has come to embody the fate of European Jews during the Second World War. The love affair was doomed because Michol and six million other Jews were doomed. In the film that De Sica has made, there is no recollective narration; rather, the whole film is saturated with a sense of Giorgio’s memory, and this memory has made Michol sadly prescient of what was to happen to herself, her family and others. (It is the knowledge of events that Giorgio, of course, has projected onto his memory of Michol.) Nothing else can account for Michol’s unwillingness to commit herself to Giorgio or explain the aura of mystery and impenetrability that attends her. It is an explanation that can now unite Giorgio and Michol spiritually, bringing their love, imaginatively, to a point of reciprocation and consummation at last. It is a bittersweet reconciliation.
Most commentators have quite missed the larger point of the film, choosing to dwell on the folly of the lofty Finzi-Continis in denying the possibility of the outcome that eventually befalls them. On the contrary, De Sica stresses that Giorgio’s father is no less in denial. This man insists that his nation’s anti-Semitic laws can be adjusted to; national pride leads him to compare Mussolini’s Fascism to Hitler’s German Nazism to the latter’s disadvantage. Indeed, his position is not without some historical basis, since Italy did refrain from sending its Jews to death camps, consigning them instead to exile or some other form of “protection.” The murder of Italian Jews occurred only after Germans invaded their ally and took over. Nevertheless, evidence of earlier persecution of Jews by the Fascist state is all too evident, and Giorgio’s insistences to the contrary strike his son, and us, as absurd. Moreover, this man is plainly deeply envious of the Finzi-Continis. The two Jewish families live in different worlds, and as if to protect his own birthright Giorgio’s father even questions the Jewishness of the Finzi-Continis. Officials make no such distinction and consign all Jews, including both families, to the same assemblage, implicitly, the same fate of deportation. The film ends with an overwhelming sense of a single Jewry. After informing a grateful Michol that Giorgio has escaped, the camera behind them, Michol and Giorgio’s father, arms about one another, look out a window of the school that they and the others have been herded into, their heads sensitively tilting towards one another, touching even. On the soundtrack is the Hebrew Lament: a piercing marriage of music and image. This is the specific memory—his father and his beloved together on the threshold of extinction—that spiritually reconciles the surviving Giorgio and the lost Michol.
The visual style of the film helps to make it immemorially sad, possibly the saddest film in creation. Soft, airy images dissolve into a haze of sunlight, helping to evoke the sense that these conjured memories of the nation’s past are too shameful, too tragic, to bring into sharper focus lest they prove unbearable, and achieving as well an elegiac tone, the visual equivalent of a distant tolling bell. (De Sica’s cinematographer is Ennio Guarnieri.) De Sica, who was not Jewish, gave as a reason for making the film his sense of conscience. This sense of his, immense, seems to take into its fold the historical consciousness and conscience in which audience members participate. De Sica’s film succeeds in uniting us spiritually with Giorgio’s memory. We feel responsible for honoring that memory to the depth of our being.
The script had many collaborators, among them Vittorio Bonicelli, Ugo Pirro, Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s longtime scenarist, and Valerio Zurlini. De Sica’s actors are wonderful: Dominique Sanda as Michol, Lino Capolicchio as Giorgio, Helmut Berger as Alberto, and Romolo Valli as Giorgio’s father. One other outstanding contributor must be noted: the filmmaker’s son, Manuel De Sica, whose score, sad, lyrical, haunting, evokes Michol and her elusiveness: Giorgio’s eternal inability to gather her up in his arms.
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