Sunday, August 26, 2007
The Garden Of The Finzi Continis - Nested Illusions Between and Betwixt The Self And The Other
Director Vittorio de Sica presents his on-screen adaptation of Giorgio Bassani’s autobiographical novel of the same title. The film has had its share of very worthy praises, materialized by numerous film awards bannered by the Oscar Best Foreign Film in 1971. It excels rather remarkably on various technical aspects as well, such as cinematography, lighting and music, as unanimously concurred by the various film reviews I have read. Most especially the latter, which according to them (and I agree) is rather very enchanting. It deviates from the normal use of “climactic” background music employed by mainstream films to stimulate the emotions of its audience (in short, I wasn’t really into the movie the first time I saw it) but instead used rather soothing harmonies all throughout the course of the plot.
Also, what seems to be a primarily a romantic film with a twist, with character subtleties making the film not really easy-viewing, had in fact socio-political allegories in its sleeve. Aside from it very political historical backdrop of anti-Semitist fascist Italy, according to film reviews, the garden of the Finzi-Continis itself, presented in many scenes, represents the lethargic, wait-and-see attitude of Italians, Jews and non-Jews alike, as response to the very grave political unrest happening around them. The tranquility inside the garden very much in contrast to the political unrest occurring outside presents the expectation of the Italian people, Jews and non-Jews alike, that the situation would not affect them severely and harmony would not be significantly disturbed by these racialist policies (Ebert, 1971). Yet, as de Sica (purposely) did not orient us of the visual boundaries of the garden, so were there uncertainties in this optimism of the Italian people. And as we all know the unfortunate fate of the Italian Jews in real life during the WWII, so was the garden breached, and the family seeking refuge inside the garden, the Finzi-Continis, was in the end rounded up as well. It implies that nothing one has, even wealth, education and prestige, or one does, can hide him from the harshness of “mindless, irrational bigotry” of the powerful people around him (Berardinelli, 2005).
One social concept this film tackles (and the supposed theme under which this film was ideally shown for) is the idea of race relations. Here the film reinforces one basic assumption on race relations: that the parameters on how people interact with others of the same race and of another are very highly political- that is, power dynamics are always involved.
Yet it is very interesting to start first with the concept of race itself. ‘Race’ is a concept used by people to distinguish their group from another on the grounds of supposed physical and genetic differences (Heywood, 2002). From a radical (but maybe in fact more appropriate) point of view, race implies the existence of biological determined physical and mental differences logically rendering some population inferior to others (Montagu, 1997). Yet, as science today refutes, this biological determination of social divisions (and hence society) is not really true (remember Solly in Europa Europa?). Therefore, the supposedly objective basis of the formation of race is now in fact rendered useless, which in turn implies that what is left as basis for the formation of race are the subjective reasons of the persons who formulated those. Note that the formation and justification of race are due to the efforts of a few people like Gobineau, H.S. Chamberlain and Hitler, and the traditional biologists and anthropologists that surround them, whose size is very much small compared to the millions of people they are trying to categorize.
Hence it is reasonable to conclude that there exists a very elitist nature in race formation that places power in the hands of the very few to dictate and justify the fate of the very much larger population.
The film’s plot then presents us a variety of race dynamics. First, there may occur a state of harmony (general peace and order) between people of different races. This is exemplified by the presumed status quo of the early 20th century Italian society, wherein the two races Jews and Aryans lived together without conflict and discrimination. Then, notice the introduction of anti-Semitist policies disturbed the normal activities of the people in Ferrara, thereby creating conflict. Here we see the second dynamic, where conflict between different races results from a certain stimulus that disrupted the initial status quo of harmony, which in general is characterized by social and political unrest. Here we can see the significance of the one who controls such stimulus, specifically the government at large. Hitler and Mussolini’s decisions greatly resulted to conflict between the Aryans and the Jews, leading onwards to the holocaust of the latter. Lastly, it is also possibly to happen that conflict may arise from members of the same race. Here the reason for conflict is clearly not racial prejudices, since they have common races. Therefore there must be some other form of social division that may trigger such conflict- and in the case of the film it was class, as exemplified by the antagonistic relation of Giorgio Lattes to the Finzi-Continis. But though this is basically class conflict, it must be noted that the conflicting parties are of the same race, and that the pretext of this conflict arose due to the same stimulus that caused the second dynamic, which is basically race motivated.
Here we see the effects of prevailing political conditions over occurring race relations. Hence it is but logical that those who dictate or influence these political conditions have considerable power over race relations itself.
Politics in its general sense, applied to the society at large and not just the government, is basically the dynamics of power- how power is used to influence the lives of others. And here, we saw that the power to create social divisions and the power to utilize them for specific means greatly affects the life of the people living in the present generation and most probably the fate of the people in the next generation.
Berardinelli, James. 1996. found in http://www.rottentomatoes.com
Ebert, Roger. 1971. found in http://www.rogerebert.com
Heywood, Andrew. 2002. Politics. Palgrave Macmillan: New York Hampshire.
Montagu, Ashley. 1997. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Altamira Press: Sage Publications.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was known as Vittorio de Sica’s comeback movie, and one of his most celebrated ones. It was released in 1971, three years before the death of de Sica in 1974, and won an Academy Award in 1972 for Best Foreign Film and a Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1971. It was based on an autobiographical novel of the same title, which was set in Ferrara, Italy, the same place where the movie was filmed.
The movie’s overall plot was very subdued. The first time I watched it, I thought it was mainly a love story, Giorgio and Micol’s love story to be specific. Basically it was yet another period film about the Holocaust. What makes it different from other Holocaust films is that it did not give emphasis to the horrors of the concentration camps and the Jewish ghettos. It showed, however subtly, the events that led to it, the visible tension in the air emanating from both the Jews and the non-Jews, the increasing persecution that the Jews are receiving. The Finzi-Continis’ garden became their sanctuary, both for the Jews and non-Jews alike. It became a safe haven for them, protecting the Jews from the constant persecution that they got outside its walls, and the non-Jews from a society that forces them to discriminate. It saved the affluent Finzi-Continis from the racial laws that the rest of the Jewish Italians were suffering from, however temporary. In the end though, the walls of the garden proved to be no match for the narrow-mindedness of the fascists, the Jewish intolerance that was infecting the entire country.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis seems to define race or racial division in several ways. The first one is through its biological aspect. How can one say who is truly Aryan or not? Those who were born Aryans were the only ones seen as Italians. The Jews, who have spent their entire lives in Italy, no matter how much they try to convince themselves and the others that they were Italians, were still seen as someone of an entirely different race simply because they were born Jewish.
It also views race as a social construct. There was a very fluid idea of what race is in this film. The Finzi-Continis were seen as “non-Jews” by Giorgio’s father because of their wealth and, according to him, because they do not act like Jews. The idea of their “non-Jewish-ness” was apparent in the film. The only incidents of their Jewishness were when they were shown celebrating the Passover, and when they were taken away at the end of the movie. The fact that they seemed to be untouched by the Racial Laws may be a contributing factor to why they were separated from the rest of the Jews. When Jews were banned from public schools, Giorgio’s brother had to go to France to continue his studies, while Micol managed to get her degree in Berlin, her only problem was that her professor gave her a low grade for being a Jew. When Jews were prohibited from having Aryan servants, the Bassani’s had to cope without a maid while the Finzi-Continis kept all their servants. Giorgio was being kicked out of a public library while the Finzi-Continis had the convenience of having their own library. And when Giorgio was banned from playing tennis, Micol and Alberto held their own tennis tournaments in their garden. In a way, the garden became their division, the thing that sets apart the Bassanis from the Finzi-Continis. What used to be a sanctuary for both of them became the one thing that separates them.
Another subtle theme in the film is the indifference of the Italians to what is happening in other places. One scene in the movie shows Giorgio finding out about the concentration camps when he visited his brother in France. His brother comes to his defense, saying that these kinds of things were not discussed in Italy. It may be that the Italians didn’t really know, or they simply chose not to know about the horrors of racial prejudice.
It wasn’t just Italy that was separated from the rest of Europe, the Jews in Italy were indifferent to what was happening to the rest of the Jewish community. As long as they weren’t the ones affected, they just let the injustice happening around them to continue. To quote Giorgio’s line: “There have always been few enough rights for everyone..” Their tolerance for the increasing maltreatment that they were experiencing was seen by Giorgio’s father’s decision to keep supporting the government even when they were already suffering from the Racial Laws.
“… we all kept quiet as long as we weren’t hit.” Point driven.
- V.R. Alberto