The Finzi-Continis at 50 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Vittorio De Sica’s “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” It’s the tale of an elite Jewish family sequestered behind the walls of their Ferrara estate, ignoring the cascade of Jewish restrictions in Mussolini’s Italy until too late. Back in 1972, the film changed my life. Now I’m reliving it.
When I saw the film with my parents at the New Rochelle art film theater on Main Street, I identified with the protagonists, the aristocratic Finzi-Continis, at play on their tennis court, in their gated garden. When they, too, get deported along with the poorer Jews, I thought, “if I’m ever going to be taken away for being Jewish, I want to know what Jewish is.” So I moved to Israel. And it changed my life.
Approaching an old love after almost 50 years is fraught. What if that love—De Sica’s Oscar-winning film—has faded, become unbearably dated? What if my bold decision to head for Israel right after the Munich massacre of the Israeli Olympic team now seems naïve? It never occurred to me to study Yiddish, my ancestral language, even though my family hasn’t been in Israel for at least a thousand years.
In fact, viewing the film on my computer, most seems unfamiliar. But the beautiful scenes are still beautiful—all those young blonde Christians at play in their elegant tennis whites on the Finzi-Contini tennis court, riding in on their bicycles when the young Finzi-Continis have been barred from the Ferrara tennis club. And the young Finzi-Continis are equally blonde and beautiful—the elegant Micòl and the frail Alberto. Not a Jewish stereotype in sight. The garden, a huge estate in the center of town, is ravishing, flowers seemingly forever in bloom—a Garden of Eden. When the beautiful young Alberto dies of an unspecified disease, his burial in a Jewish cemetery is almost a shock. Since I was visiting my parents for Passover, I was probably struck by the contrast of the joyful singing at another family’s seder followed by the apparently sederless Finzi-Continis formally wishing a visitor a happy Passover.
What I remember are the final scenes—three generations of Finzi- Continis taken away by Fascists in business suits. Their servants, presumably illegally employed Christians, look on silently. Unlike the other Jews rounded up for deportation, they’re not even prepared with little suitcases. The beautiful Micòl remains aristocratic to the end—correcting the fascist mispronouncing her name. And the film’s final wrenching music— when I first saw it, I’m sure I couldn’t have identified it as El Maleh Rahamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
When the film moved me back then, I quit my U.S. job and spent a year in Israel.
AMY STONE, “Return to the Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” on the Lilith Blog.