The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is probably Vittorio De Sica’s greatest film. For me it surpasses both The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, his neorealist masterpieces. This WWII film is filled with longing, as though the pre-war days are being seen through halcyon eyes. It’s far afield from its opulent, hedonistic, and violent counterparts by De Sica’s Italian contemporaries: The Damned, Salo, etc.
The Finzi-Continis are a wealthy, respected family, who also happen to be Jewish. This doesn’t bode well in 1930s Italy.
One of the best parts about De Sica’s direction is how much takes place off-screen, and how the emphasis is on the forbidden precisely because of what happens off-screen. It slows the pace a bit, and makes this more of a movie about internalized desire, rather than anything overt.
The cast is great. Dominique Sanda is a perfectly idealized Micol Finzi-Contini, the object of desire of many, including Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio). The rest of the major cast includes Bruno Malnate (Fabio Testi) and Alberto (Helmut Berger). These latter two, though clearly third and fourth billed, are the most interesting to me. Malnate has such a great character arc. He starts as the arrogant bully and becomes truly sympathetic towards the end. Alberto is clearly a latent homosexual. It’s unclear whether his sexual appetite is what makes him a weak character or whether (more likely, I think), that all of his longing will go unfulfilled and that weakness is repression and discontent.
I like a lot of the almost morbidly dark cinematography from De Sica and DP Ennio Guarnieri. Here’s a great sequence. Giorgio peers through a rainy window of a guest house on the Finzi-Contini estate:
His POV reveals Micol in the arms of another man:
Eventually Micol notices him through the glass and makes eye contact:
This in and of itself is a somewhat eerie, if not ominous moment. But then Micol slowly leans away, and as she does her face becomes deathlike. The second image below is a hollowed out skull. And the third is utter darkness:
It’s such a strong moment without words, and the imagery supports the absolute crushing devastation that Giorgio must have felt. Micol is dead to him.
Some of the film reminds me of Death in Venice (which I think I’ve said before reminds me, in turn of The Damned. Shouldn’t be a surprise either way. Visconti made both of those films and he was a contemporary of De Sica’s). Here’s one of those parts. Alberto on his deathbed is sickly pale. He’s white as a sheet and the makeup is almost delirious:
Alberto’s no bad guy in this film – much less so, at least, than those similarly made up in those Visconti films, but there seems to be something about this type of mise-en-scene that connects to the absolute ugliness of the period.
I like a lot of De Sica’s camera movements. Here’s one that’s fluid and eerie. The camera dollies right to left, catching soldiers and bystanders seemingly frozen-
-and eventually revealing Giorgio:
I like how the camera starts on side characters and on environment and only then finds the protagonist. It adds not only an air of creepiness, but also of paranoia, as though we are a roving eye, watching everyone (and, simultaneously, being watched, as the soldiers and bystanders prove).