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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Lord God Sent Them Forth from the Garden
by Donald Levit

Surrounded by family and ducal Ferrara’s other Jews herded into custody, grandmother’s (Inna Alexeief) collapse signifies the end of the line. It is 1938 and the end of an era, not only of an ethnic culture of two millennia that flowered mightily as early as the Middle Ages but also of a gentle, and in this case privileged, way of life. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis/Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini marked Vittorio De Sica’s return after a commercial hiatus to the acclaim of his socially conscious neorealism period

Winner of the 1971 Oscar for best foreign-language film and of Berlin’s Golden Bear, the film was co-scripted by the director’s collaborator of postwar glory, Cesare Zavattini, with input from Giorgio Bassani, author of the source novel who later repudiated the screen version. Acting -- Dominique Sanda rose to international fame -- direction, cinematography, and son Maueul De Sica’s score were praised, and the whole became a touchstone for early Holocaust considerations.

Forty years afterwards, viewing the ninety-four minutes as a DVD on a thirty-two-inch screen necessarily diminishes larger, outside implications along with the shared, communal audience experience. Subsequent like-themed movies, on into today’s excess of dramatizations and documentaries, have dulled a shock of uniqueness, while world events and media supersaturation muffle outrage, since “when multiplied, suffering becomes abstract. It is not easy to be moved by abstract things.”

DP Ennio Guarnieri’s soft-focus lens distances what happens, even as it reflects the aristocratically wealthy Jewish family’s helpless distancing itself from the reality building up beyond the walls and manicured grounds that moat their private Eden from that reality of hatred and persecution. It is not that they maintain their innocence while still dwelling in the garden, for the men at least venture into the city, news does come in, and increasing restrictions are put on their civil rights.

In another context, Andrew Sarris took De Sica to task for “lacking an insight into the real world, rely[ing] instead on tricks of pathos that he had learned too well as an actor.” The intellectual title family, too, lack such insight, and doom is indicated not exactly by them but through music that now sounds soupy and camerawork dwelling, for example, on sky through trees.

Although all are headed for the same fate, which brings them to embrace one another, the less fortunate, less removed middle-class Jews more clearly see the handwriting on the wall. His younger brother bundled off to school and perceived safety in France, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio) will not heed his parents’ (Romolo Valli, Barbara Pilavin) worries and advice to stay in Grenoble. He is in love with Micol Finzi-Contini (Sanda), and while the barriers of class could be overcome, the fact is that she does not return the love of this friend from youth. She is, in fact, at the very least infatuated with his “hairy” Gentile friend Bruno Malnate (Fabio Testi), with whom she has summer-lodge trysts but whom, in any case, new racial-purity laws would prevent her marrying.

As one by one doors social, economic, educational, legal and military are closed to them, the older generation (father and mother, by Camillo Cesarei and Katina Morisani) smile and stroll the estate. Membership rescinded at the tennis club, Micol and uncomfortably close tubercular brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) open the gates to bicycling Jewish and Gentile friends for their private court, a frequent scene.

Much though not all is filtered through the sensibilities of Giorgio, who is coldly treated by his beloved but counseled by his father that disappointment -- “to die” is the appropriate metaphor chosen -- is more readily overcome by the young than their elders.

There is no attempt to fathom the passivity of the doomed, nor would nor should there be, a paralysis or apathy that has not been explained elsewhere, either, and that only recently has been challenged by revisionist claims about fighting Jews. For its story moment before the gathering storm broke, and for its moment in De Sica’s career when he relaxed after paying gambling debts, a garden wall held up, a finger in the dyke, just before the deluge and fall into darkness.

(Released by Cinema 5 Distributing; not rated by MPAA.)

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