Tuesday, May 9, 2017

1971 Winner, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Director:  Vittorio de Sica

Distributed by:  Sony Pictures Classics

Released:  December 1970

Country:  Italy

Even if you are the most casual of film watchers, you probably have heard of the famous Italian director Federico Fellini.  He directed four Best Foreign Films winners, technically more than anyone else, including greats like Kurosawa and Bergman.  But before 1956, the Academy did not formally award an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, handing out non-competitive “Special/Honorary” awards from 1947 through 1955 for foreign films released in the United States.  If you count the eight Oscars given during that period (there was none given in 1953), there is another Italian director who also won four BFF Oscars:  Vittorio de Sica.

In some ways, De Sica is counter-weight to Fellini, leading what was known as the neo-realist movement in Italian cinema.  De Sica’s films deal in real-life situations, some grim and some comical, but always grounded in struggle and unfairness.  His characters, often played by non-actors, are not out of a dream and when they talk and think and act, they are talking and thinking and acting real things.  His movies are straightforward and his characters are easy to identify with.  Such is the case with his last great film, 1971 BFF winner The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.  Though it is not actually a neo-realist film, the movie is really about the end of the dream and the beginning of the reality.

Though this film belongs squarely in the “realist” category, the garden of the Finzi-Continis is sort of
Something inspires Giorgio to make his move on Micol
an escape from the realism that is pre-World War II Europe.  The Finzi-Continis are a rich Jewish family living on an estate in Northern Italy in the 1930’s, when being Jewish more than negates being rich.  Both kids are in their late teens as we meet them:  Mikel is the pretty blonde daughter who all the boys are just wild about; Alberto is her less popular, sickly older brother.  The two kids invite all their friends to hang out and play tennis, at a time when hanging out with Jews, even rich ones, is generally frowned upon.  This is their oasis from the outside world and from what is coming.

Micòl has a friend in her life named Giorgio, who grew up with her as close friends, and much of the film centers on their relationship.  He is the nice guy of the group, and also Jewish, while Alberto’s friend Bruno is the vulgar Neanderthal whom Micòl wants nothing to do with, seemingly.  Giorgio and Micòl’s friendship is explored in the occasional flashback, with their paths seemingly destined to come together romantically.  

Midway through the movie Giorgio takes the bull by the horns and kisses her, thinking she might be just as into him as he is into her; we the viewer see after the kiss, Micòl’s eyes are as lifeless as the “doll’s eyes” shark in Jaws—and if you kiss a girl and she has doll’s eyes, you either didn’t kiss her right or she just ain’t into you.  But maybe there’s more here—maybe Micòl realizes the sheltered world of the garden is in the past, and the future, especially for two Jewish kids, isn’t very bright.  Which is where we get back to the concept of realism—the time for this oasis from the anti-Semitism of Mussolini’s Italy is coming to an end, regardless of the wealth of the Finzi-Continis.

Doll's eyes
Pre-World War II movies are rarely full of optimism and this film is no exception.  There likely will be few happy endings for these characters.  Unlike another film set in pre-war Italy, Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, there is no joy to be found here.  That’s because The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is real.  The garden the young friends gathered to, playing tennis together in this spot of beauty, is what wasn’t real.

The title:  Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini.  The film is an adaptation of a 1962 novel by Giorgio Bassini.

The Culture:  The film underscores how wealthy Jews were not exempt from the way their people as a whole were treated.  At one point, Giorgio’s father, says he didn’t think of the Finzi-Continis as Jewish.

Agenda danger:  The film’s message, I think, is that no matter how hard you try to ignore reality, it will come.  Giorgio is the central character of this film, and when I watched, I wondered why the other characters did not feel his anger at what was happening.  But Micòl is the one who, I think, sees what she will lose and knows that fighting it will be ultimately useless.

Best Picture that year:  The French Connection
Rating:  The realness that this film brings made me sympathize with the characters and dread the slipping away of the lives they loved.  De Sica ended his career on a high note—the other three BFF winners (that he made prior to this film) will be something to look forward to.

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