A crowd of young people in tennis whites and bright hopeful smiles cycle up the long drive towards a tennis court in the shadow of a large Italian mansion. The sun shines, the garden and its occupants are beautiful, every one is in a good mood. The situation cannot last.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) tells the story of a group of Italian friends between 1938 and 1943, and centres around two Jewish families. In particular, Giorgio (Lino Cappolicchio in a role that made his name) is the son of a middle class family who is in love with the daughter of the aristocratic owners of the garden and tennis court, Micòl Finzi Contini (Dominique Sanda, who appeared in Bernado Bertolucci’s Il Conformista also in 1970). The film charts the change from the relatively carefree time before the war into the dark days of the German occupation of Italy.
If you ever wondered, and admittedly it’s a fairly niche thought, what an Italian neorealist film would look like in colour, the answer might be the lush visuals of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The film is directed by Vittorio de Sica, who made one of the most famous neorealist films, The Bicycle Thieves, in 1948. By the time this film was made neorealism was long gone and these characters are certainly not poor, however there are certain continuities. The characters face an almost impossibly difficult situation and at least one member of the cast, the luminous Dominique Sanda, was better known at the time as a fashion model than professional actor.
The garden that surrounds the spacious chambers of the Finzi Contini family mansion is ringed by a wall that keeps out the world both physically and figuratively. Despite the ever increasing anti-Semitism of Mussolini’s regime, the family stay put and carry on with the routines and rituals that have carried them through the ages. Even Giorgio’s father, middle class and less secluded, believes that they will be safe – after all Mussolini isn’t as bad as Hitler and he is a member of the party (yes, it appears that the Italian Fascist party allowed Jews to be members). Like the changing of the seasons, the encroaching horrors occur almost imperceptibly.
All those stylish white outfits, acres of manicured lawn and broken dreams bring to mind The Great Gatsby, although the film version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow came out four years later. The stakes in The Garden of the Finzi Continis are considerably higher than social reputation and financial solvency, but both stories hang their stories around doomed love affairs. As the characters are expelled from the garden, Georgio’s love for Micòl is also a species of exile, a sort of hell.
The Garden of the Finzi Continis is moving in the extreme, and it is easy to see why it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1971. De Sica makes a damning indictment of Italian Fascism without virtually a single German soldier in sight.
The Arrow Academy reissue is especially thorough as usual. It contains brand new transfer and subtitle translation of the film on DVD in the UK for the first time, interview with star Lino Capolicchio (which includes some great anecdotes, including fainting when being told he has talent by De Sica), interviews with screenwriter Ugo Pirro and composer Manuel De Sica, an original Trailer. Again the DVD comes with a comprehensive booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by Italian cinema expert Christopher Wagstaff with new translations of screenwriter Ugo Pirro and composer Manuel De Sica s comments on the making of the film as well as a contemporary interview with De Sica.