Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis were both released in 1970, both based on novels (by Alberto Moravia and Giorgio Bassani, respectively) and both set during World War II. De Sica’s film covers the beginning of Fascist atrocities, while Bertolucci’s film covers the end. The two films are also complementary in terms of their central characters: while the eponymous conformist joins up as a Fascist hitman, the Finzi-Continis are potential victims of the regime. Perhaps it is for this reason that De Sica’s film so easily carries the director’s gentle and engaging mark, while much of Bertolucci’s feature is as cold and charmless as Fascist architecture.
Fans of De Sica will find in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis both beloved characteristics of the director’s famed neo-realist approach, and stimulating new additions such as warm colour photography, intimate extreme close-ups and effortlessly soaring long shots. At its opening, the lush, bright images of privileged youth may seem far from his work of the 1940s and 50s, with its gritty focus on society’s underdogs. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows a group of friends who orbit a local aristocratic family and their expansive estate. Reminiscent of the privileged world of Oxford or Cambridge, the film’s title sequence shows the friends dressed in tennis whites, riding bicycles through the cobbled streets of Ferrara, flanked by high walls and wicket gates, or the sun-dappled forests of the Finzi-Continis’ expansive garden.
The Finzi-Continis’ situation is not as secure as it seems, however, and this is made clear early on in the friends’ conversation. Micòl, the daughter of the family, says that she could spend her whole life in the garden, while her brother Alberto says that he wouldn’t mind going out if you could control who you meet, and how they look at you. One of their friends, a Communist, comments that he is a persona non grata in Italian society at the moment, just like ‘you Jews’. As a Jewish family, the Finzi-Continis are at risk: for the moment, their garden is a safe haven, and they invite Fascists as well as opponents of the regime to join them for tennis matches, as if hoping that friendship and normality can prevent future prejudice and hatred. As anti-Semitic laws are introduced, the Finzi-Continis’ world appears less a rambling place of privilege than a tiny sphere of safety, one that is increasingly under threat.
Like Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966), The Garden of the Finzi-Continis successfully recreates something of the reality of war by demonstrating that everyday life will still go on, as long as possible, even in times of crisis. In Menzel’s film, a new recruit at a train station eventually fights for the resistance, but first he’s more concerned with losing his virginity. Similarly, against the background of increasing political repression in Ferrara, Micòl’s childhood friend Giorgio, who is also Jewish, longs to transform their friendship into romance. His brother, forbidden to study in Italy, goes to France for university, and Giorgio goes to visit him. A devotion to learning, while particularly significant in unenlightened times, also represents a victory for normalcy: Micòl keenly pursues her doctorate on Emily Dickinson, while Giorgio, excluded from public reading rooms, asks to use the Finzi-Continis’ private library to continue his studies of poetry. The Finzi-Continis shower him with murmurs of approval and the father of the family offers him every assistance.
Learning and foreign travel are also key motifs in The Conformist: Fascist agent Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant, of My Night at Maude’s fame) agrees to go to Paris to meet his former lecturer and current enemy of the regime, Professor Quadri, and eliminate him. In the peculiarly masculine, unforgiving world of fascism, a feminine presence can provide relief. Marcello’s fiancée, Giulia, is an affectionate airhead, who at least offers some comedy, but Professor Quadri’s elegant wife Anna (Dominique Sanda, who happens also to play Micòl in de Sica’s film) shares her husband’s principles, and adds to it a canny suspicion of Marcello. Like Micòl inviting Fascist tennis players round for a match, Anna seems to hope to appeal to the humanity of Marcello, not understanding that he lacks it entirely.