Last night I watched The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, adapted to the screen by Vittorio De Sica. I’d read Giorgio Bassani’s book two years ago, and was eager to watch the film too. Overall, I thought the book was deeper and more powerful, although it’s the subtlety that I love about this novel.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the story of the Jewish community of Ferrara in northern Italy in late 1930s and early 1940s. Mussolini’s Racial Laws have taken effect, and Jewish citizens are stripped off a growing number of rights. When the Jewish youth are expelled from the tennis club, the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family, decide to start a tournament of their own in their magnificent, immense garden. Our middle-class protagonist Giorgio, who is in love with the Finzi-Continis’ daughter Micòl since they were children, takes part along with Alberto, Micòl’s brother, and Bruno, Alberto’s friend. Micòl is a charming young woman but is notoriously spoilt and whimsical. As Giorgio spends more and more time at the Finzi-Continis’ estate, he gets mixed messages from her, who seems to toy with him. Like Micòl, Giorgio is studying for a degree in Literature, but one day he gets kicked out of the library as well, so Professor Finzi-Contini, Micòl’s father, opens the family library for him. (They don’t even know if they’ll be able to get their degrees, as Jewish children are forbidden from state schools.) The war is imminent and members of the Jewish community feel the pressure in different ways – apart from the secluded Finzi-Continis, who, according to Giorgio’s father, don’t look and act Jewish. Micòl eventually declares that she and Giorgio should stop seeing each other. At the end of the book, many of the characters meet an unfortunate fate, which we know that Giorgio had dreaded all along.
It’s not simply a Second World War story; I think the plot has the love story in the foreground, the political developments forming the background. There are not many events, and it’s the emotional twists and turns that keep you engaged. Actually, a lot was happening in the world at the time, but what stands out in the story is that the Finzi-Continis blissfully ignore the developments, playing tennis in their glaring white fashionable tennis outfits.
The Passover dinner scene looks like a central one in the film: everyone’s singing happily around the table at Giorgio’s house when the telephone rings with an urgent shrill. Giorgio stiffens – everyone’s tense those days – and gets up to answer it but no one responds. The telephone rings two more times and only in the third time does Alberto speak on the other end, to everyone’s relief. I don’t remember that the phone rang three times in the book, but it could have some allegorical significance – I feel there might be some connection with the hymn they’re singing, which features the numbers one, two and three. (One stands for God, two for the tablets of Moses, three for the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Well, the hymn continues to numbers four and five but the telephone rings after three.) Upon hearing that Micòl has returned from the university in Bologna, Giorgio rushes out, leaving his family and making his priorities clear to everyone.
I was looking forward to the scene where Giorgio’s dad has a chat with him when he returns home one day in the early hours of the morning after roaming in the streets broken-hearted. His father talks to him wisely and sweetly, telling him that his broken heart will heal with time, and the Finzi-Continis are not good for them anyway. The book portrayed Giorgio’s father as a respectable old man and a loving father, whereas in the film, he comes across as a bit comical in his childish excitement, loudness and quick-temper.
After reading the book, I thought the crux of the story was the ambiguity regarding Micòl’s character. Was she simply vain and carefree, and found a more attractive admirer, or did she actually know what was awaiting her and Giorgio and the rest of the community? I think the film leant towards the latter interpretation; that she broke up with (or rather, rejected) Giorgio to avoid adding another layer of complication to their already sad ending. She looks Giorgio hard in the eyes as he finds her and Bruno naked in Finzi-Continis’ Hütte (the fancy way that Micòl refers to the hut in the garden) where she had previously invited Giorgio (the Hütte scene with Bruno must also be added to the film).
At the end of the film, Micòl and her family are called to the police station together with other Jews, to be sent off to an uncertain place. When they’re leaving the house they line up before their servants in their usual proud and dignified composure. Later in the police car, Micòl looks at the streets of Ferrara for the last time. At the very last scene, there’s a flashback with Micòl hitting the tennis ball on the court, sending it off to Alberto and then to Ernesto and Bruno, who’s already died fighting in Russia. We hear an elegy in Hebrew in the background. The message, I think, is that they were united in their fate. This last scene in the film might be there to make up for Giorgio’s internal monologue at the Passover dinner table in the book, when he studies the faces of the people around the table and says that most of them are going to end up in concentration camps.
I found out that the book was not as auto-biographical as I’d thought – Bassani was born into a wealthy family, like the Finzi-Continis that he mocks in his book. (In one edition of the English translation, Tim Parks explains that the name Finzi-Contini sounds like “fake little counts” in Italian, in reference to their pretentiousness). When Alberto dies, we see the funeral procession solemnly enter the Jewish cemetery amid air raid sirens. Well, I know the film was shot in Ferrara, and unless they used another venue for that scene, that’s where Bassani himself was buried when he died in 2000.