Garden of the Finzi-Continis, The (1971): De Sica’s Best Foreign Language Oscar Winner

Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, 1956-presemt
1971: Year 16–Italian Film
A chronicle of the rise of fascism in Italy and its impact on one rich and educated Jewish community, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, directed by maestro Vittorio De Sica, deservedly won the 1971 Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The film, De Sica’s penultimate work, won the Golden Bear at the 1971 Berlin Film Fest.


At a time when not many Holocaust-themed movies were made, De Sica’s portrait of love, strife and death during wartime, achieved singular distinction, not to mention elegiac beauty, by examining its subjects from multiple perspectives, not limiting the depiction just to the Jewish denizens.
Set in Italy before and during World War II, the narrative centers on members of rich Jewish families, who deluded themselves that fascism would never affect their privileged existence.
Like other people their age, the Jewish youth are romantic and full of dreams about their bright future. This dream-like reverie is accentuated by Ennio Guarnieri’s lush cinematography, which uses soft hazes and tender hues.
Based on the memoirs of Giorgio Bassani, the tale begins in 1938, when Mussolini’s racial laws are beginning to be implemented, threatening to impact even the well-respected Jewish aristocracy. The new rigid rules prohibit the employment of servants, library privileges, attendance of public schools, obituaries for the dead and so on.
At first, the family members disregard the new laws, naively deeming them irrelevant. We are taken by the image of some affluent college students biking through the forest, all dressed in white ready for a tennis game, which gives the scene a serene, innocent, almost religious imagery.
The luxurious sets, designed by Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni and Mario Chiari, convey a lush, comfortable lifestyle, lived within huge castles-estates, surrounded by magnificent gardens and tall protective walls.
The story’s hero, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), is first seen sharing some concerns with his father (Romolo Valli), who begins to worry that even though he’s a Fascist member, he may not be able to escape the rising, imposing tyranny.
Initially, life continues as usual, or almost as usual. The rich and esteemed Professor Ermanno Finzi-Contini (Camillo Angelini-Rota) and his family delude themselves that they are safe from the tyranny on the streets. They try to maintain their elegant, aristocratic lives behind their garden walls, when the fascists begin to bar Jews from just about every social institution.
For a while, when Giorgio begins to be shunned, the Finzi-Continis manage to retain most of their privileges, and Micol continues playing tennis with her Aryan beaux. The director of the library takes a typical stance when he disallows Giorgio entry, claiming the arbitrary decision is not his he’s just obeying orders from above.
Meanwhile, Giorgio courts his childhood sweetheart Micol Finzi-Contini (the gorgeous Dominique Sanda, who was also in Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” that year), an even richer member of the Jewish community than he is.
“Children are always prisoners of grownups,” Micol says about how she has broken her parental control, a statement that encourages the romantic and hormonal Giorgio to pursue her sexually. But an affair is not to be and in a cruel turn of events, Micol turns out to be a tease and then an icy sex goddess, liked to be watched by Girogio when making love (passionlessly) to another man.
Micol, who views Giorgio as her brother Alberto (Helmut Berger), has no interest in having romantic attachment to him. Earlier, she asks her servant to bring Giorgio to her bedroom, where she is lying in her tight and revealing nightgown.
De Sica’s richly observed, poignant recreation of an era suggest that even noble, sensitive people could not escape their senseless doom. The sight of wealthy, well-dressed Jews line up politely to go to their slaughter conveys eloquently the tragic ending of a whole community (and race).
Fittingly, in terms of tone, the saga changes from the innocent and the romantic to the bittersweet and sad to the fatefully tragic and finally to the hopeless demise.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis marked a crucial phase in the careers of the actors who played Micòl and Alberto. Dominique Sanda (Micòl), would become internationally famous after appearing in this film as well as in Bertolucci’s The Conformist and 1900. Helmut Berger also would emerge as a major actor of stature, especially after his associations with Visconti.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

In the late 1930s, in Ferrara, a clique of young friends gets together for afternoons of tennis and good time. Some of them are Italian Jews, fearing a rising tide of Fascism that has imposed antisemitic restrictions. Barred from regular tennis clubs, they play at the grand and walled estate owned by the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy, intellectual Jewish family.
The two young Finzi-Continis, Alberto and his sister Micòl, have organized a tennis tournament. Oblivious to the threats around them, life still seems to be sunny at the large estate, keeping the rest of the world at bay.
Among the visitors vying for the beautiful Micòl Finzi-Contini is Giorgio, her Jewish childhood friend. A series of flashbacks show how Giorgio used to wait outside the estate, to get a glimpse of Micòl.
As teenagers they became friends, and as adults, they enjoy their mutual company. During sudden downpour in a gazebo, Giorgio tries to touch her, but she rejects him.
Meanwhile, Alberto, whose health is fragile, enjoys friendship with Giampiero Malnate, a handsome gentile with socialist sympathies.
Giorgio’s father considers the Finzi-Continis so different that they don’t even seem to be Jewish. Wealth, privilege and generations of social position have bred them into a proud family.
The Jews in the town react to Mussolini’s edicts in various ways: Giorgio is enraged; his father is philosophical. But the Finzi-Continis hardly seem to know, or care about, what is happening.

Giorgio, about to graduate, becomes a frequent visitor to the villa where he is allowed to use their library. He is in love with Micòl, but she unexpectedly leaves to stay in Venice with her uncles.

Upon her return Micòl changes, rejecting any show of affection from Giorgio. Instead, she carries on an affair with Giampiero, a man she claims to despise as vulgar, crude, and too leftist for her tastes. Peeking through a window Giorgio discovers Giampiero and Micòl naked together. Heartbroken Giorgio is comforted by his father.

The political events soon close in. A journey to visit his brother Ernesto in Grenoble exposes Giorgio to the Nazi persecution. When the Germans invade the Soviet Union, Giampiero is recruited and sent to the Russian front.

By 1943 all the young Jews who used to visit the Garden of the Finzi-Continis have been arrested; Giampiero is killed at the Russian front.  Italy is occupied by the Germans and the fascists are hunting and rounding up the Jews of Ferrara.

The Finzi-Continis are abruptly taken away from their illusory isolation. Separated from her parents, Micòl and her frail and distraught grandmother are placed in a former classroom.  The Jews of Ferrara are doomed, about to be deported to concentration camps.

In the tragic last sequence, images of the old happy days of Micòl and Giampiero playing tennis are substituted by vision of the now the empty tennis court. The sequence is emotionally empowered by the soundtrack, which plays “El Male Rachamim,” a traditional Jewish lament for the dead.


Lino Capolicchio as Giorgio
Alessandro D’Alatri as young Giorgio
Dominique Sanda as Micòl Finzi-Contini
Cinzia Bruno as young Micòl
Helmut Berger as Alberto Finzi-Contini
Fabio Testi as Giampiero Malnate
Romolo Valli as Beniamino, Giorgio’s father
Camillo Cesarei as Ermanno Finzi-Contini
Katina Morisani as Olga Finzi-Contini
Inna Alexeievna as Regina Finzi-Contini
Barbara Pilavin as Giorgio’s mother
Ettore Geri as Perotti, the majordomo
Raffaele Curi as Ernesto
Giampaolo Duregon as Bruno
Marcella Gentile as Fanny
Franco Nebbia as Professor De Marchis

Oscar Nominations: 2

Best Foreign Language Film (Italy)
Screenplay (Adapted): Ugo Pirro and Vittorio Bonicelli

Oscar Awards: 1

Foreign Language Oscar

Oscar Context:

De Sica’s film won over competition from Japan’s “Dodes’ ka-den,” Sweden’s “The Emigrant,” which also was nominated for Best Picture, Israel’s “The Policemen,” and the U.S.S.R. entry, “Tchaikovsky.”
The winner of the Adapted Screenplay Oscar was Ernest Tidyman for “The French Connection,” which also won Best Picture and Best Director. The other nominees in that category were: Bertolucci for “The Conformist,” Kubrick’s for “A Clockwork Orange,” and Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich for “The Last Picture Show.”
DVD Edition
For the 25th anniversary, Sony Pictures Classics released a nicely restored print with a new soundtrack.