Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, about Italian Jews under the Fascists, turns 50 this year

The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it also brought renewed attention to Giorgio Bassani, whose 1962 novel it was based on.

Baradwaj Rangan October 04, 2020 09:44:55 IST
Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, about Italian Jews under the Fascists, turns 50 this year

A still from The Garden of Finzi-Cotinis. Twitter

It’s the late 1930s. It’s the city of Ferrara in northern Italy. The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini (Il Duce) is applying “racial laws” against Italian Jews. But you wouldn’t know this by looking at the four people we see at the beginning of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. They’re dressed in white. They’re zipping down the street on cycles, carrying tennis racquets. When they reach their destination, there are other youngsters in white. They’re all waiting for the gates to open, so they can enter the Finzi-Contini “kingdom”, as one of them calls it.

It’s a huge estate bounded by huge walls, and it belongs to the hugely wealthy Finzi-Continis, who are Jewish. If the Fascists have drawn a line between Jews and Aryans, the Finzi-Continis have similarly “discriminated” themselves from the world beyond those walls — to the extent that they seem to have shaped their own version of reality.

When those cyclists (a mix of Aryan and Jewish, but far lower down the class ladder) end their journey — it’s a long way from the gates to the mansion — we see that they’re here for a tennis tournament organised by the two young Finzi-Continis: Alberto and his sister Micòl. They’ve decided to hold the tournament in their estate because the regular tennis clubs have banned them. Had Twitter been around then, the siblings would have been lambasted as “privileged” and “tone-deaf”. Great wealth, apparently, causes great blindness. The siblings aren’t thinking about why they aren’t allowed into clubs anymore. They aren’t thinking about the prevailing anti-Semitism. All they’re thinking is: If they won’t let us in, we don’t need them. We’ll find a way to play tennis on our own.

The next day, we are ushered into the very middle-class home of one of those tennis players, Giorgio. He’s Jewish. His practical-minded father doesn’t like all this hobnobbing with the Finzi-Continis. He thinks that they’re “different” (even though they’re Jewish, too). He thinks they’re glad about what’s happening, and that they actually welcome the anti-Semitic laws, so that they can convert their garden into “a ghetto under their noble patronage”.

Seen today, the use of the word “ghetto” is fascinating. When we think of the time period this film is set in, we think, of course, about the Jewish ghettos, which were eventually transformed into concentration camps. But consider, also, the dictionary definition of the word: “a part of a city occupied by a minority group or groups”. This is the sense Giorgio’s father is alluding to. In terms of their wealth, the estate (or the “garden”) of the Finzi-Continis is certainly no “ghetto”, but it’s certainly one in the sense of a walled-off area that’s home to a minority group.

The beauty of the film is that, for a good part of its running time, it is itself a kind of “ghetto”, less concerned about the world than what’s happening in that Edenic garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The biggest question we are asked to ponder is whether Micòl will accept Giorgio’s love. But slowly, the world encroaches on this idyll. When Micòl returns from Venice after getting her degree, she exclaims blithely, “I made it, but without honours. The German professor, a brute of a Nazi, had it in for me.” (She chuckles.) “Why, he even conducted his exams in Nazi uniform!”

But other encroachments aren’t as “amusing”. When Giorgio visits his brother in France, he finds there’s a lot he doesn’t know, a lot he’s been sheltered from. He meets a man who has a number on his arm. The man says it was put on him at Dachau, “a hotel in the woods. A hundred chalets, all rooms without baths, a single latrine, surrounded by barbed wire. The service is provided by the SS. Instead of tagging our luggage, they brand numbers on our flesh as a souvenir of their hospitality.” And a little after Giorgio returns, Il Duce makes a speech to a frenzied public about Italy declaring war.

You may wonder, then, at the wisdom of not showing much of this earlier. Why devote so much time to Giorgio and Micòl? One reason, of course, is that we need to see and know what Paradise is like before it is lost. Secondly, as Giorgio’s father tells him after Micòl breaks his heart: “In life, in order to understand, to really understand the world, you must die at least once. So it’s better to die young, when there’s still time left to recover and live again.”

Finzi-Continis was a return to form for Vittorio De Sica, who was on the verge of being considered a pale shadow of the man who made Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it also brought renewed attention to Giorgio Bassani, whose 1962 novel it was based on. He was an Italian Jew from Ferrara, and in his novels, he enshrined the events he witnessed both as an act of cultural memory and personal healing.

In the book’s prologue, the narrator — the Giorgio figure — says he has wanted to write about the Finzi-Continis for many years, but thought turned into action only after a weekend visit to an Etruscan cemetery, filled with the remains of those who lived thousands of years ago. This makes him think about the “monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis”. But only one of the Finzi-Continis had actually been buried there. The rest “were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.” And thus, we return to the design of De Sica’s film. If the purpose of a memorial is to remember, then The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the family’s “grave” the book’s narrator never found. People forget, but art doesn’t.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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