The Garden of the Finzi Contini (Il giardino dei Finzi Contini) Review

Ferrara, Italy. As Mussolini rises to power, the wealthy Jewish Finzi Contini family live an idyllic life behind the walls of their estate. Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a Jew from a middle-class background, is in love with the beautiful Micòl Finzi Contini (Dominique Sanda), with whom he had been to school, but she is in love with another. As war progresses, tragedy looms.

Giorgio Bassani's novel Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (note that hyphen – more about it later) was published in 1962. There have been more than one translation into English, and the book is still in print in the UK in an edition from 2007. The book came to Vittorio De Sica's attention in 1968, after previous attempts to film it had come to nothing. At first De Sica doubted he was the right director for it, envisioning a treatment perhaps akin to Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, but once persuaded he took to it with enthusiasm. The script is by Vittorio Bonicelli and Bassani, rewritten by Ugo Pirro. Amongst the changes De Sica made was to reorder the film's chronology, with scenes showing Giorgio and Micol at school (played by younger actors than the two leads) becoming flashbacks, a device that De Sica had disliked before now, but vital to the film's theme of time and memory. The final one is very poignant.

Bassani disapproved of the final version of the film and had his name removed from the screenplay credit. He also insisted on the hyphen being removed from the title of the film, so as to distinguish it further from his novel. This belies the opening credit which says “based on the novel of the same name by...”.While I'm here, more about the title in passing. The film has been known before now under the English-language title The Garden of the Finzi Continis. Arrow's DVD (and Christopher Wagstaff's essay in the booklet inside the case) leave the final S out, which sounds odd to my English ears as “Finzi Contini” is a family name. I'm no expert on Italian, so I will simply mention it here and defer to those more knowledgeable than myself.

However, with or without that final S, the film was a considerable success. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (along with the scripts for The Conformist, A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show, losing to Ernest Tidyman's script for The French Connection) but won for Best Foreign-Language Film. If you count the 1947 honorary award to Shoeshine, this was the fourth and last Best Foreign Language film Oscar that De Sica won, those in between being Bicycle Thieves in 1949 and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in 1965. Garden has been shown on British TV once that I can trace and/or remember - a dubbed screening in the early days of Channel 4 in 1984, which after complaints changed their policy on foreign-language films – and hasn't been commercially available in the UK since its cinema release in 1972. Incidentally, what gained an A certificate – the direct equivalent of today's PG – in 1972 now rates a 12, mainly due to a topless postcoital scene late on that I won't describe any further to avoid a plot spoiler.

De Sica was five years away from his death when he made Garden and although its protagonists are young, it's in many ways an older man's film, being an elegy for a way of life soon to vanish, and foregrounding a story of unrequited love against a wartime background. The Finzi Contini family are beautiful and impossibly glamorous to the more middle-class Giorgio, Micol especially, but that glamour is maintained at the expense of a wilful blindness to what is going on around them, for which they pay a terrible price. Although Ennio Guarnieri's lush photography does its best, you could argue that – given the title - the garden isn't as much of a character in the story as it should be, though that may be due to the fact that it's a composite of three different locations. Lino Capolicchio may be top-billed but the film belongs to Dominique Sanda. Giorgio may be besotted with her, but her beauty is a cold one: it's there in Sanda's body language and especially her eyes. She had made her debut in Robert Bresson's Une femme douce, but this and The Conformist in the same year propelled her into an international career, including The MacKintosh Man (in which she seems awkward acting in English), though after 1977's Damnation Alley she has worked primarily in Europe.

Although De Sica continued to make films – and act in them, including an appearance in the Warhol Blood for Dracula in the year of his death – his later works are little regarded, and Garden stands as his last significant directing credit. He died in 1974 at the age of seventy-three.


The Garden of the Finzi Contini comes to DVD as part of Arrow's Academy line, on a dual-layered disc encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. This is a very good-looking film, somewhat soft-focussed with bright sunlit exteriors and much use of coral and orange tones in the interiors, a few years before such a look became ubiquitous for evoking period. More importantly it looks the way that Eastmancolor films made around the end of the Sixties do look like, and the grain is natural and filmlike. A very good transfer.

The soundtrack is the original mono. The track may be more problematic to people who have watched fewer Italian films, as like the majority of films of the time from that country, it has clearly been postsynchronised rather than recorded live, and sometimes lipsynch is off as a result. And if my lipreading is up to scratch, Dominique Sanda seems to be speaking her lines in French while being dubbed over in Italian – again a common practice with European coproductions. English subtitles are optional for the feature and the extras.

There are three interviews on this DVD. The first two are with Lino Capolicchio (12:57) and with co-scriptwriter Ugo Pirro (13:09). Capolicchio, who had been taught by Giorgio Bassani at drama school, tells how he had to audition first against Laura Antonelli and then against Dominique Sanda before being given the role. He describes how De Sica occasionally stood in for cast members to show actors how to play certain scenes – even standing in for Sanda in showing Capolicchio how to kiss her! Pirro describes his involvement with the screenplay, which consisted of a major rewrite, adding the present ending and removing any uniformed Germans from the film. The director's son – and the film's score composer – Manuel De Sica is an offscreen interviewer with Capolicchio and an onscreen one with Pirro. In the third interview (9:14), he talks to camera about how his father felt that he had become a director for hire with the comedies he had made in the 1960s and wanted to “become a director again”. De Sica Junior also discusses his approach to writing the score, which involved some disagreements with his father. The final extra on the disc is an Italian-language trailer (3:44) which has a lot of emphasis on the fame of the novel.

Arrow have provided a twenty-four-page booklet which contains “The Garden of the Finzi Contini”, an essay by Christopher Wagstaff. By including extracts from print interviews with Manuel De Sica and Ugo Pirro, it does overlap with the on-disc interviews somewhat, but in its consideration of Bassani's novel complements them nicely. Also in the booklet is an extract from a 1972 interview with Vittorio De Sica by Charles Thomas Samuels, in which De Sica says that if anything the film is too beautiful-looking for its own good. The booklet is completed by cast and crew credits, a “projectionist's note” about the aspect ratio along the lines of similar ones in Masters of Cinema's booklets, colour and black and white stills and colour reproductions of Italian and French posters for the film on the front and back covers respectively.

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out of 10

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