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

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.
At a time when not many Holocaust 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 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 views Giorgio as her brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) and 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, his saga changes from the innocent and the romantic to the bittersweet and sad to the fatefully tragic and finally to the hopeless demise.

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 were: Bernardo Bertolucci for “The Conformist,” Stanley Kubrick’s for “A Clockwork Orange,” and Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich for “The Last Picture Show.”
DVD Edition
For the 25th anniversary, Sony Pictures Classics released a nicely restored print with a new soundtrack.