Dear friend,
I congratulate you. Disaster endears beyond Fortune.

– Emily Dickinson1

Il giardino dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio De Sica, 1970) is a tranquil film about disaster, a gentle and uncannily lyrical film about destruction. A family of cultured and cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews live in a rambling aristocratic villa, surrounded by acres of private parkland, on the outskirts of the Italian city of Ferrara. The year is 1938 and the dictator Benito Mussolini is starting to apply his punitive ‘racial laws’, which make it progressively harder for Jews to work or study or engage in business, or even to use a public library or tennis court. The family, in response, retreats ever deeper into its hermetically sealed private world. At the end, Fascist officials show up and deport them to Auschwitz. That is as far as this movie goes in terms of any actual plot.

One simple question will be uppermost in the minds of most audiences. Why does not at least one member of the family simply pack up, get on a train and get out? It is not as if the wealthy Finzi-Continis lack the wherewithal to move. The reason they do not is much akin to the reasons why the heroines in the Chekhov play Three Sisters do not get onto a train and move to Moscow, as they insist nonstop they are about to. Nothing in the history or life experience of either family has ever prepared them, psychologically, for the reality that such a move would entail. Elsewhere in the film, a middle-class Jewish father (Romolo Valli) arranges for his younger son to go and study in France. When the mass deportation comes, he stays behind heroically to allow time for his wife, his elder son and his daughter to escape. But this is a man who inhabits a world of bourgeois pragmatism, who has spent his life doing what he had to do when he had to do it. The Finzi-Continis, on the other hand, have lived for generations in a world of discreet luxury and cultured seclusion. They could never conceive of acting in such a way – and might even consider it to be in bad taste. When their world dies, all they know is how to die with it.

It is significant that the family’s villa – a rose-tinted neo-Baroque monstrosity, in the heart of what looks like an enchanted forest – does not resemble any place we might ever have seen in real life. It is recognisable, exclusively, as the abode of a sleeping princess in a fairytale. Hence the central character is the family’s only daughter, Micòl. She is played by Dominique Sanda, an actress whom Pauline Kael described accurately as “a sumptuous blond former model with a big mouth, who looks like a depraved Valkyrie.”2 The lovely Sanda does not act in any conventional terms, any more than Micòl lives in the conventional terms of the world outside those high garden walls. It seems only too appropriate that she writes her university thesis on Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is barely comprehensible outside the terms of her tormented and feverish private world. It is fitting, too, that we catch her reading the Jean Cocteau novel Les Enfants Terribles. This 1929 story of a glamorous, quasi-incestuous brother and sister provides an exact, almost solipsistic mirror for Micòl’s relationship with her brother Alberto (Helmut Berger). Both she and her brother are attracted, despite themselves, to the one rank outsider in their midst, a non-Jewish left-wing dissident named Malnate (Fabio Testi).

The resulting triangle is at once interracial, homoerotic and incestuous – but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis does not take us too deeply into any one of these three characters. Everything is filtered through the memories of Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a middle-class Jewish boy who views the Finzi-Continis with the same awed adoration that Charles Ryder shows for the aristocratic Marchmain family in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. The rather tedious Giorgio spends most of the film agonising over the fact that Micòl is not in love with him and wondering plaintively why not. (The audience can see exactly why not: Giorgio is the living embodiment of a world from which Micòl, subconsciously at least, longs to escape.) Yet he makes for a distinctly unilluminating eyewitness, and the emotions in much of the film are quite needlessly diffuse. This is by no means a fatal flaw; Kael observes that “if (Sanda) stalks around her castle looking maybe a little more opaque than is absolutely necessary, she is nevertheless wonderfully remote.”3 Yet this distanced and highly literary approach can make it difficult to respond to the film as fully as we might like.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was to have been directed by Valerio Zurlini, whose earlier film Un estate violenta (A Violent Summer, 1959) had dealt eloquently with bourgeois life under Mussolini’s Fascist regime. After Zurlini was fired, the project passed to De Sica – a one-time luminary of neorealism who had degenerated, by the ’60s, into a commercial hack directing knockabout comedies for Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. The result is a film that works emotionally despite being, in technical terms, rather badly made. It is edited so execrably that every sequence seems to end too abruptly or go on too long, or to begin right in the middle of whatever it is we want to see. De Sica’s grotesque overuse of zoom shots makes us long for the subtle artistry of Spanish horror maestro Jess Franco. While cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri lights everything very prettily, De Sica is almost entirely negligible as a visual stylist. All of this is infuriating, but none of it matters a great deal; The Garden of the Finzi-Continis moves us because the people in it are at once beautiful and doomed. That is a lot more than most movies ever manage.

• • •

Il giardino dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1970 Italy / West Germany 95 mins)

Prod. Co: Documento Film, CCC-Filmkunst Prod: Gianni Hecht Lucari, Arthur Cohn Dir: Vittorio De Sica Scr: Ugo Pirro, Vittorio Bonicelli Phot: Ennio Guarnieri Mus: Manuel De Sica Ed: Adriana Novelli Art Dir: Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni

Cast: Dominique Sanda, Lino Capolicchio, Fabio Testi, Helmut Berger, Romolo Valli


  1. Emily Dickinson, quoted in Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 665.
  2. Pauline Kael, “Clobber-Movie” in Deeper into Movies, Calder & Boyars, London, 1975, p. 163.
  3. Pauline Kael, “The Fall and Rise of Vittorio De Sica” in Deeper into Movies, ibid., p. 365.

About The Author

David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He teaches courses on Michael Powell and Dark Fairy Tales and is currently working on a book about Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.

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