The Garden of the Finzi-Continis opens with a series of striking images of nature: colorful leaves, towering trees, sunshine peering through the foliage. But these are the most unnatural of times. A momentary preface reveals the looming tragedy of this picturesque Italian village: the implementation of Mussollini’s racial laws between 1938 and 1943. Beyond the gated walls in the center of Ferrara lies the estate home of the Finzi-Continis, a highly regarded, aristocratic Jewish family. The Finzi-Continis are literally untouchable, rarely venturing in public, isolating themselves from the turmoil of war and religious persecution. The adult children, Micol (Dominique Sanda) and Alberto (Helmut Berger), entertain friends, take academic instruction from private tutors, and carry out romantic liaisons, all within the confines of the estate. Even the grandmother’s field trips consist of a chauffeured drive around the estate grounds. But as the racial laws grow increasingly more stringent, the Finzi-Continis withdraw further into their insular, albeit illusory, paradise. Micol spurns her childhood admirer, an attentive young man named Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), the son of a Chamber of Commerce official. Soon their circle of friends collapses, as interracial relationships are outlawed and draft notices are served. Despite Giorgio’s father’s (Romolo Valli) political connections, he is unable to spare his family from the dehumanization of the new laws, and begins to question his allegiance to the ruling Fascists.
Using visual contrast, Vittorio de Sica creates an understated, elegant, and hauntingly poignant film in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The opening scene of the visitors wearing light colored clothing and the suffused warmth of the summer sun sharply contrast with Alberto’s illness and the dark, winter clothing worn by the family as they are escorted to a detaining facility. Furthermore, the visual dichotomy is presented through Micol and Giorgio’s ill-fated relationship, as the ethereal lightness of their childhood memories is replaced by the darkness surrounding Giorgio as he discovers Micol’s betrayal. Inevitably, the walls of the Finzi-Contini estate cannot insulate the family from the ravaging whims of political tide, and is forced to accept a social equality, a hopeful affirmation of humanity and community.
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