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.
Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini is often mischaracterized as a story about the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Italy of the 1930s. Indeed, those events play an undeniable role, but this film from Italian director Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine) tells a much more personal, universal story than all that. The real story here is about a young man desperately in love with a woman that he can't have, even though they have been the best of friends since they were children. It is a story about the crushing blow that unrequited love can be, and the cruelty that both parties in such a situation often show each other. It is a story of how our own desires can lead us to self-destructive and stupid behavior.
It is also a story of lost innocence on a larger scale. De Sica captures the extent to which our youthful pursuits seem like the whole universe to us when we are young, until larger events sweep us away and bring a jarring awareness of the world outside our own hearts.
Facts of the Case
Our protagonist is Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a young man from a middle class Jewish family in Ferrara, Italy. All around him is the rising tide of Fascism, but he and his friends are able to avoid it for the most part, for a while. His father is so oblivious to the coming threat that he is actually a member of the Fascist party. Giorgio gathers regularly with a wide circle of friends to play tennis, many of whom are much wealthier than he. Jews have been barred from the regular tennis clubs, but no matter; Giorgio and his friends meet at the grand, walled estate owned by the Finzi-Contini family. The Finzi-Continis are wealthy and sophisticated, and seem to live in an entirely different world from the one Giorgio and his friends inhabit. Indeed, his father remarks that the Finzi-Continis "don't even seem Jewish."
Giorgio is desperately in love with Micol Finzi-Contini (Dominique Sanda), whom he has known since they were children. We are shown in a series of flashbacks how Giorgio used to wait outside the walls of the estate, hoping for a glimpse of Micol, and how the two became fast friends in their younger days. Things have changed, however, and Micol coldly rebuffs any show of affection from Giorgio. Instead she carries on an almost perfunctory affair with Bruno Malnate (Fabio Testi), a man she claims to despise as too vulgar, crude, and leftist for her tastes.
But not all the garden walls or tennis playing in the world can stop the course of governments and history, and the Jews of Ferrara soon feel the squeeze of Mussolini's Fascists. It starts slowly, with small indignities such as crank telephone calls and no more hired help; by the end of the movie Italian soldiers are hunting down and rounding up the Jews of Ferrara for a journey that we know all too well to be a one-way trip. Still, this is not the main focus of the film, and serves only as a final, cruel blow to rouse the Finzi-Continis from their contentment and illusory isolation. It serves also to jar Giorgio into the realization that the world stops for no man, even if he is recovering from the wounds of his first true love.
De Sica's film unwinds slowly, like a dream, and carries us into Giorgio's world. The visuals aren't that impressive at first glance, but they are real and enveloping, and we are absorbed into pre-war Italy before we know it. De Sica got such convincing, sincere performances from his actors that we can't help but be drawn in to the emotional reality of the story as it unfolds on the screen in front of us. As a viewer, I was surprised at the strength of my emotional reaction to Giorgio's story; I found it almost uncomfortably personal. (It must have struck a chord in me on a subconscious level as well; for nights after first seeing it I had dreams of my own first "serious" girlfriend, a person I had not even thought of in several years.)
None of this would have been possible without some excellent performances by the two leads, Capolicchio and Sanda. Capolicchio is very good as Giorgio, and brings the character to life in every situation, whether he is pining over Micol or railing against the injustices imposed by the Fascists. Capolicchio gives us a portrait of the "angry young man," stung by what he sees as an unfair world and spiteful fate.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis made an international star out of Dominique Sanda. Her stunning looks come across as pure ice as she creates a character both eminently desirable and deliberately malicious. Micol demonstrates the casual cruelty that a rejected young man gets to know so well, the cruelty born of the fear that he won't stop following her around like a puppy dog if she is in the least measure nice to him. Sanda understands this, and infuses Micol with just the right amount of affected steely harshness. Sanda also captures Micol's arrogance and defiance later on in the film, where she very carefully, but very pointedly corrects the Fascist operative who gets her name wrong. In the end it is probably Micol who has the greatest revelation and loss of innocence, as she realizes all that has been going on around her as she contented herself with coy game-playing. Sanda's amazing eyes and expressive lips would be able to tell the whole story without the aid of dialogue, and often do.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis comes to us from Columbia TriStar by way of their Sony Pictures Classics label. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen in what appears to be its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture overall is good, but shows the age of the source material. There are lots of nicks and scratches, blips, speckles, and other assorted blemishes. Colors seem somewhat muted and not as vibrant as they could be. The image overall is often fairly soft, but this seems to be a deliberate cinematographic choice, rather than a flaw in the transfer process. Blacks are nice and solid, shadow detail overall is decent, and the transfer shows surprising clarity at times. On the other hand the picture is often grainy, and seems completely flat, without even the slightest sense of three-dimensional perspective. I did spot some isolated instances of edge enhancement, and some scenes where there seemed to be some bleeding; the scenes in question featured brilliant white tennis clothing under direct sunlight. Overall, the picture quality is about as good as can be expected for a film of this vintage, which is sadly not what we are used to with modern DVD releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I tried to be as lenient and understanding as possible with the video quality, because try as I might I can't cut the audio that much slack. The audio is presented in what appears to be Dolby Stereo, although there is next to no channel separation and the final result is indistinguishable from a mono track. The musical score often blares and distorts noticeably. Dialogue is often thick and muffled, although it is easy enough to understand, or would be if I actually spoke Italian. Also, it appears that Italian films of this era were still being almost completely dubbed in post-production; as a result the voices are strangely disembodied. For the most part the dubbing is fairly well done, but it is very obvious that the dialogue was not actually recorded on-set. The actors do a good job for the most part, but this practice does occasionally lead to animation-style extremes in over- or under-acting.
Given the record that Columbia Tri Star and Sony Pictures Classics have established, there are surprisingly few special features included on this DVD. There are filmographies for De Silva, Sanda, and Capolicchio, and trailers are included for Shanghai Triad, Dancing at Lughnasa, and The End of the Affair. They are all presented full-screen and are fairly unremarkable, although these do look like interesting films. But that's all you get; no production notes, no amusing anecdotes, not even a cheesy stills gallery.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1971, and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival that same year. It is a poignant, wonderful film that will hit a lot closer to home than most unsuspecting viewers will anticipate. The DVD from Sony Pictures Classics is a decent effort. The picture and sound aren't what we generally expect from DVD, but one gets the feeling they did the best they could with what they had. The lack of any real special features is a crime, however, especially given the prominent status accorded with fine film.
The film, De Sica, Sanda, and Capolicchio are all acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. Sony Pictures Classics is guilty of producing a DVD with no significant extra content, and that is just not acceptable for a film of this stature. I sentence them to thirty days of watching badly-dubbed foreign films on VHS, in pan and scan.
We stand adjourned.
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