De Sica’s Lost Masterpiece “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”.

Vit­to­rio De Sica began his life as a dash­ing Ital­ian mat­inée idol, waltz­ing his way breezi­ly through what came to be referred to sniffi­ly as their white tele­phone films of the 1930s.

But when he emerged as a direc­tor in the 1940s, he made some of the most influ­en­tial films in Ital­ian Neo-realism.

Films like The Bicy­cle Thieves, Mir­a­cle in Milan and Umber­to D are today seen as arche­typ­al exam­ples of the genre. They fol­lowed non-pro­fes­sion­al actors, in real loca­tions as they tried in vain to come to terms with life in a post-war and pover­ty-rav­aged Italy.

All seri­ous film mak­ers in Italy began in the neo-real­ist mode in the 40s, 50s and 60s. And they all of them almost imme­di­ate­ly aban­doned it in favour of their own per­son­al ver­sion of its exact opposite. 

So Felli­ni  moved to the mul­ti-dimen­sion­al, overt­ly the­atri­cal and glo­ri­ous­ly colour­ful arche­types of and Amar­cord. Vis­con­ti to the metic­u­lous­ly man­nered melo­dra­ma of Sen­so and Death in Venice. And Anto­nioni to the mea­sured for­mal­ism and the care­ful­ly craft­ed sculp­tur­al struc­tures of the Mon­i­ca Vit­ti trilogy.

Only Roselli­ni stayed the course, hence the some­what ossi­fied feel­ing to most of his lat­er films. 

De Sica sim­i­lar­ly aban­doned neo-real­ism and went back to the easy-going, feel-good come­dies that Ital­ians seem to need as a reward for all the seri­ous art they’re sub­ject­ed to. And by the 60s he was best known for films like Mar­riage Ital­ian Style, and Yes­ter­day, Today and Tomor­row star­ring Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni and Sofia Loren.

Though both, it should be not­ed, are sig­nif­i­cant­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed than they appear. And De Sica’s own colour­ful mar­i­tal arrange­ments, togeth­er with the need to fund his gam­bling habit, were at least par­tial­ly to blame for his return to the more com­mer­cial arena.

But as he neared the twi­light of his career, he once again felt the urge to pro­duce some­thing of a bit more sub­stance. And for ten years after it was pub­lished in 1962, he car­ried the Gior­gio Bas­sani nov­el The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis around with him, until final­ly he was able to raise the mon­ey to get it made.

The film stars Dominique San­da and Hel­mut Berg­er (who were con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­ed to appear in all Ital­ian art-house films at the time) as the two chil­dren of an impos­si­bly wealthy and bliss­ful­ly cul­tured Jew­ish fam­i­ly in an Italy as it moved inex­orably towards the II World War, with all that that would mean for its pop­u­la­tion of Jews.

What it does so well is to mar­ry what script guru Eoghan Har­ris calls the pri­vate and pub­lic axes. Along the pri­vate axis, you have the Gior­gio char­ac­ter, as he tries for­lorn­ly to pur­sue the obscure object of desire that is la San­da. She is unat­tain­able on every con­ceiv­able lev­el. And yet clear­ly, there is a pro­found con­nec­tion between them. What is it that holds her back?

Whilst along the pub­lic axis, you have Gior­gio’s father, a hard work­ing Jew­ish busi­ness man and a loy­al Ital­ian. And, like so many oth­ers, all he wants is to fit in. So he joins the Fas­cist Par­ty. And he and the com­mu­ni­ty of Jews that he is a part of look on in hor­ror as the real­i­ty of the era into which they were born slow­ly begins to dawn on them.

Beau­ti­ful is not a word I use very often. I’m with MacLiammoir on that. Like love and genius, it’s been hope­less­ly debased from being over-used. But this is that rare excep­tion, a gen­uine­ly and heart-break­ing­ly beau­ti­ful film. 

It’s De Sica’s love let­ter to doomed youth. And it’s hope­less­ly and exquis­ite­ly beau­ti­ful. It’s out now, final­ly, on DVD. And you should also have a look at the inter­view with his son, Manuel, who com­posed its score. He cor­rect­ly laments the film’s one, minor flaw; the un-nec­es­sary mon­tage that the films briefly ends with.

But those few stray frames aside, The Gar­den of The Finzi-Con­ti­nis is a qui­et mas­ter­piece (anoth­er one of those over-used words), and it demands to be seen.

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