It is 1938 where in Ferrara, a town in Italy, the fascists are gaining power in a reflection of what is happening to the north in Nazi Germany, and that means many Italian Jews are growing nervous knowing the persecution the Nazis carry out on their race. But in the garden of the Finzi-Continis, a well-to-do Jewish family in the town, they prefer not to think about such things: why weigh yourself down with the miseries of the world when there are tennis matches to be played? For Giorgio (Lino Cappolichio), a middle class but not as well off Jew, the upper crust life of this clan is impossibly glamorous, and incredibly desirable as well, particularly the grown daughter Micol (Dominique Sanda)...
Director Vittorio De Sica was wondering at the point he made this film whether his time as a vital member of the cinematic sphere was well and truly over: he was approaching seventy years of age and his latter work was being dismissed. That was until he made Il giardino dei Finzi Contini, or The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as it was called in English, which may have been his last major success but was an immensely gratifying one for a man who had been in the business decades with a number of undeniably important efforts to his name. He was adapting a factual, autobiographical book by Giorgio Bassani about the dark period of Italian history during the Second World War, but not an aspect which often troubled moviemakers.
So it was partly the unexpected nature of the subject matter, telling audiences that the Jews suffered in countries other than Germany throughout that era, and making it clear what happened to them as Mussolini's government tried to ape the Nazis in a pitiful fashion was just as terrible as what happened to those victims elsewhere. Here, however, De Sica was taking an interesting tack in that the family depicted apparently had so much more to lose since they were rich, had a lavish mansion and grounds, and were essentially among the aristocrats of the region, hence their erroneous belief they would be spared. You might be of that opinion as well, seeing as how the film encourages you to luxuriate in the exquisite affluence of the title characters.
It was only when the end came with crushing inevitability that you realised the Finzi-Continis had been fooling themselves, and to an extent fooling those around them who looked up to them and their old world glamour, so that there was nothing to save them. Well, that's not quite true as Giorgio who drifts into their orbit is able to escape, yet for the closing of a story that has been visually beautiful for much of the time a rude awakening is orchestrated which has you thinking, why with all your privilege did you not perceive the danger and escape yourselves? Some accused De Sica of wallowing in the carefully designed imagery to the detriment of a story that went from A to B without much of a digression, but that was precisely what the family was doing.
The attractive Micol becomes a symbol of the whole tragic business as she glacially spurns the advances of Giorgio, who sees in her something worth preserving whether that be her physical charms or her breeding, even her wealth, making it that much more sobering those who would seek to exterminate her race could not see anything of value in her or her family, she was just one more person to round up and take to the concentration camps. It was true that while Sanda embodied this with a fascinating grace, you did want to give her a shake and have her wake up to the horror encroaching on her home, and she is contrasted with Giorgio's more proactive methods, in spite of his continual return to her, an exercise in increasing futility. Of course, the trouble with such a daintily conceived piece of cinema was that it could be accused of adopting a picture book style and all the poorer victims would be neglected, but by portraying the most camera friendly of them you could say De Sica made very canny points, and the final scenes are moving. Music by Manuel De Sica (Vittorio's son).