Mussolini's Italy, late 1930s: the Finzi-Contini are one of the leading wealthy Jewish families. Their adult children gather friends for tennis and parties at their lovely grounds, with the rest of the world at bay, while politics close in.Written by
In this haunting work by Vittoria De Sica an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family, the Finzi-Continis, serve as a symbol of European civilization in the hands of the brown shirts on the eve of World War II. Seeing it again after thirty years I find myself saddened almost as much by the story of a stillborn, unrequited love as I am by the horror of the cattle cars to come.
Dominique Sanda with her large, soft eyes is mesmerizing as the beautiful, enigmatic, but icy Micol Finzi-Contini. Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio) is her childhood friend, a boy from a middle-class Jewish family, now grown up. He's in love with her, but her feelings for him are that of a sister. He is confused by her warmth, and then as he tries to get close, her cool rejection. It has often been expressed metaphorically that Europe in the thirties was raped by fascism. However in this extremely disturbing film, De Sica is saying that it wasn't a rape, that the aristocracy of Europe (here represented by the Finzi-Continis of Ferrara, and in particular by the young and beautiful Micol) was a willing, even an eager, participant in the bestial conjoining.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is far from perfect; some would say it is also far from De Sica's best work. Certainly it comes after his prime. The editing is a little too severe in places, while some of the scenes are too loosely focused. Nonetheless this is an enormously powerful film that finds its climax in one of the most disturbing scenes in all of cinema. There is little point in discussing this film without looking at this scene. Consequently, for those of you who have not seen the film and do not want to risk having it spoiled for you, you should stop reading now and come back afterwards.
Everything in the movie works toward setting up the cabana scene. We see the dog several times, hinting at a crude, animalistic side to Micol. And there is the wall that separates the Finzi-Contini's garden of civilization from the brown shirts in the streets, a wall that also separates the rich from other people, particularly from the middle class who support the fascists (as we are told in the opening scene). We see Micol leading Giorgio by the hand about the estate, but always when he tries to caress her, she pulls away. Finally she explains to him why she doesn't love him. She says, "lovers want to overwhelm each other...[but]...we are as alike as two drops of water...how could we overwhelm and want to tear each other...it would be like making love with a brother..." But hearing these words is not enough. Giorgio goes to the wall one last time, sees a red bicycle there (red and black were the colors of the Nazi party) and knows that Micol is with someone else. He climbs the wall and finds the dog outside the cabana so that he knows she is within. In the opening scene she referred to the cabana with the German "Hütte," adding that now "we'll all have to learn German." What he sees when he looks through the window fills him with a kind of stupefying horror, as it does us. Not a word is spoken. He sees her, he sees who she is with and what the circumstances are. She sees him, turns on the light so that there can be no mistake and they stare wordlessly at one another. She projects not shame, but a sense of "This is who I am. I would say I'm sorry, but it wouldn't change anything. This is what I'm drawn to."
What is expressed in this essentially symbolic scene, acted out in sexual terms, is what happened to Europe. Micol is at once the love he wanted so much, deflowered by an anonymous, but clearly fascist man, and she is also the aristocracy of Europe, polluted by fascism.
I wonder if it is just a coincidence that the famous poem by Robert Browning, "My Last Duchess," is also set in Ferrara. In that poem the narrator reveals himself through the unfeeling brutality of his speech and actions to be, although an aristocrat, an incipient fascist. I also wonder if De Sica is saying that the Jews in some sense contributed to the horror that befell them, and by extension, all of humanity. We see this expressed in the person of Giorgio's father who continually insists that it's not that bad yet, as step by step they lose their status as citizens, a prelude to the dehumanization that is the precursor of genocide. Certainly the closing scenes in which the Jews of Italy are seen to be compliant as they are led to the slaughter suggests as much. I know that the central feeling expressed by Jews after the war and especially in Israel was simply, never again. Nevertheless, there is a certain sense of the inevitable about this film that I find particularly disturbing. Passivity in sexual terms, a "giving in" to one's nature is one thing. A passivity in political terms is quite another, and yet it is part of the power of this film to show us how they are related in our psyches.
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