Thursday, 30 July 2015

THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Haunting De Sica Holocaust Drama in Digital Restoration at TIFF Bell Lightbox Series, "More Than Life Itself"

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970)
Dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Dominique Sanda, Helmut Berger,
Lino Capolicchio, Fabio Testi, Romolo Valli

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The grandly sprawling walled estate of the wealthy, powerful and aristocratic Finzi-Continis family in Ferrara, Italy has always been a world unto itself, but with the rise of Fascism in the 30s, it becomes a hermetically sealed paradise, a refuge from the madness of a country turning topsy turvy with prejudice, hatred and on the brink of world war. The Finzi-Continis are no ordinary family. They're Jewish in a country rapidly embracing virulent Antisemitism, but even amongst the Jews of Ferrara, they've always been set apart, living upon a pedestal of great intellect and seemingly high above those Jews amongst the middle and working class.

As always, though, prejudice and class seem to be the domain of older generations and the youth have always held the highest regard and friendship for each other, so that even when the wealthiest, most aristocratic Jews have been banned from the elite tennis clubs of Ferrara, its youngest, both Jew and Gentile, secret themselves away within the walls of the Finzi-Continis gardens to carry-on their traditions of weekly tennis matches and friendship.

Based on the novel by Ferrara's own Giorgio Bassani, one of Italy's great authors, it made perfect sense that one of Italy's great filmmakers, Vittoria De Sica would craft a movie adaptation of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. One of De Sica's last films, it was not only honoured with one of a multitude of Academy Awards his work garnered, but was indeed a triumph of the style and sensitivity he'd become known for with such great works as Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine, The Children Are Watching Us and amongst so many others, the immortal Umberto D.

Bassani was a Jew who managed to survive the Holocaust and continued to teach, write (pseudonymously, of course) and fight the fascist movement as a member of the Italian underground. Many of his books, like this one, dealt with life under Fascism for the Jews of Italy, but thematically, he found himself drawn to the notion of memory and its ability to act as both a balm and a force of great sadness and danger.

This is what De Sica so beautifully captures in this simple love story between childhood lovers, the aristocratic Micol Finzi-Contini (Dominique Sanda) and Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), the son of Jewish family of the middle class. Though they're love is deep, Micol looks upon Giorgio as a brother-figure and breaks his heart when she takes up with the ruggedly handsome gentile Bruno Malnate (Fabio Testi). For Micol, the memories of childhood should not be tarnished by "romance" and instead she believes she must instead court the sexy socialist who is her opposite in every way, but as such, provides the kind of spark she can't get from her pea-in-the-pod Giorgio.

De Sica places considerable emphasis on the romantic entanglements and yearnings of this triangle, as well as Micol's deep love for her own brother, the sickly Alberto (Helmut Berger). Though every so often, the realities of fascism and Antisemitism creep in (the young intellectuals are terrified they'll not be allowed to graduate from the universities they're enrolled in), the Finzi-Continis. especially Micol, drive themselves deeper within the walls of their estate. Giorgio's father (Romolo Valli) attempts to ease his son's sorrow by suggesting that the Finzi-Continis have always lived in such an elevated station that he never even considered them Jewish.

He's certainly right about the family's elevated station since their garden seems to not only be a physical enclosure from the rest of the world, but that the entire family, especially Micol, live in a garden that exists in their minds. This is, of course one of De Sica's greatest triumphs as a filmmaker. He so indelibly captures a sense of enclosure that we, as an audience are lulled by it as well.

When Fascism in Ferrara explodes, it comes with such a fury and so swiftly that we, as viewers, seem as unprepared for the film's final, devastating minutes as the Finzi-Continis family are. As Jews are rounded up and separated for deportation to the death camps, we can't help but feel a horrendous catch in our throats, especially as Micol and her aged grandmother huddle together in a cramped classroom converted into a waiting room for death. Memory rears both its beautiful and ugly heads as Micol realizes she's in the classroom of her childhood.

Looking out the hazy windows upon the grey, grim world, De Sica fills his soundtrack with "Kel Maleh Rachamim", the Jewish prayer of mercy for the souls of the departed.

And yes, we weep for the departed and their memories of a world that once seemed so innocent, so beautiful.

De Sica was and still is one of the greatest. Even in his last years as an artist, he continued to make us weep for the disenfranchised, the exploited and the hated, but all the while, still managing to infuse us with humanity and with love itself.


The digital restoration of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For Tix, times and dates, visit the TIFF website HERE. For those unable to attend this screening, one assumes the restored film will soon be available on Blu-Ray. In the meantime, there is a Sony Pictures Classics DVD out there with a passable transfer until this new one is released more widely.