Love, death and tennis: the forgotten Italian masterpiece about the horror of fascism – The Guardian

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‘In life, in order to really understand the world, you must die at least once. So it’s better to die young, while there’s time to recover and live again.” The speaker is a middle-aged Italian Jewish businessman of Ferrara, in the early 1940s, attempting to console his heartbroken son, Giorgio – who has been rejected by a young woman, Micòl Finzi-Contini. But these words are to have a terrible ironic significance, because it is Micòl, not Giorgio, who is destined to be taken away by the fascists, along with the rest of her Jewish family, and handed over to Italy’s ally, Nazi Germany, for deportation to the death camps.

Together, poor besotted Giorgio and the exquisitely unattainable Micòl are the non-lovers in Vittorio de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, his profoundly disturbing and mysterious 1970 film about doomed love and fascist horror. To mark the 50th anniversary of this film, which won the best foreign film Oscar and the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival, it is to get a special screening at the UK Jewish film festival, accompanied by a Zoom discussion in which the film’s French star, Dominique Sanda, will take part.

The tennis shall go on ... The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
The tennis shall go on … The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Photograph: John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

Directed by the same director who made Bicycle Thieves, the film is adapted from the 1962 novel by Giorgio Bassani, about a 20-year-old man who is fascinated by the Finzi-Continis: a Jewish family of enormous sophistication and prestige and the possessors of a magnificent house with a sumptuous walled garden. While all the other Jews are increasingly harassed and persecuted by the fascists, the Finzi-Continis are apparently unconcerned, insulated by their wealth, and when Jews are excluded from the city’s tennis club, it is this family, with defiant insouciance, who invite young people to play tennis on the court in their garden – Jews, non-Jews, socialists, non-socialists. This invitation comes from the family’s beautiful daughter Micòl (played by Sanda) and her delicate, similarly beautiful brother (played by the Austrian actor Helmut Berger). Alberto is friendly with the handsome, rough-hewn leftist Malnate (Fabio Testi), a frequent visitor to the garden. Malnate’s boorish, opinionated manner appears to annoy Micòl – or is she secretly attracted to him?

Poor Giorgio is of course deeply in love with Micòl and her whole family – rather like Charles Ryder with the Marchmain family in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. He is obsessed with his childhood encounters with Micòl when they were both 10, and she impishly beckoned him into this Garden of Eden. For Giorgio, these memories, rendered as delicate flashbacks in De Sica’s film, are what consecrate the purity and intensity of his feelings for her. But for Micòl, they make him seem like nothing more than a sweet kid brother, and his anguish and despair unfold in ironic parallel to the horrifying advance of Nazism – a giant historical force that should render these feelings irrelevant, but somehow amplifies his banal heartbreak.

Meanwhile, the garden and its arcadian games of tennis are like the Weimar Berlin cabaret of Bob Fosse’s movie – a place of supposed respite from the horrors encircling it, or maybe like the Lido in Death in Venice, or even Prince Prospero’s masquerade ball in The Masque of the Red Death. They are places where you are supposed not to think about the sickness closing in.

Dominique Sanda in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
Herded … Dominique Sanda in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Photograph: Ronald Grant

De Sica’s film makes changes from the novel. Bassani was not descriptively explicit about the Finzi Contini family’s terrible fate, whereas De Sica shows them being taken away by the trenchcoated secret police and even briefly herded into the local schoolroom where Micòl studied as a girl – the scene of another flashback. The novel only implies that there is a sexual connection between Micòl and Malnate; the film makes it explicit and Bassani implies that there is a gay frisson between Alberto and Malnate, though De Sica and his two screenwriters, Vittorio Bonicelli and Ugo Pirro, take the emphasis off this point. Bassani has a superb passage in which Giorgio discusses the issue with Malnate who “like a true goy” thought that “homosexuals were only ‘poor bastards’ … I, on the contrary, maintained that love justifies and sanctifies everything, even homosexuality, and more: that love, when it is pure, completely without material interest, is always abnormal, antisocial, et cetera, just like art…”

Malnate and Giorgio go to the movies together. In De Sica’s film, they are watching a gruesomely pro-Nazi newsreel and when Giorgio disgustedly mocks the “clowns” up on screen, a fascist audience member of the audience throws a punch and the two men have to scurry out of the cinema. In Bassani’s novel, this scene has the same outcome, but the opening is more indirect: they are going to see “a German picture with Kristina Söderbaum” – Bassani doesn’t specify which one but it can surely only be the notorious antisemitic propaganda film Jew Süss, in which Söderbaum took the starring role. (Söderbaum was a hated figure for many for the rest of her life, but kept working, and her last role, a little bizarrely, was a cameo in the 1993 film Night Train to Venice, starring Hugh Grant.)

The real star is the garden itself, photographed in that plangent glow that marks so much European cinema of the time, with its exotic palm trees adored by Micòl, and the huge, ancient plane tree that she claims was planted by Lucrezia Borgia. It is here that Giorgio is to kiss Micòl and where his own terrible sadness is planted.

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