Monday, August 14, 2006


A beautifully made film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, that approaches the subject of the Holocaust almost obliquely through the experience of one Jewish family in a town in Italy in the late 30's. As anti-Semitism is becoming not just socially acceptable but creeping into the laws of the land, we see the aristocratic Finzi-Contini family try to ignore what's happening by maintaining their own world inside their large urban estate. When the local tennis club bans Jews, the beautiful Micol (Dominique Sanda) and her handsome but frail brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) invite a group of friends to play (and socialize) in their gardens. Most of the story is told from the point of view of one of those tennis players, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a middle-class university student who has been harboring a crush on the aloof Micol for years. When the school library is declared off-limits to Jewish students, the Finzi-Continis encourage Giorgio to use their private library, and he finds himself growing close to the siblings, especially Micol. Giorgio believes that Micol has romantic feelings for him, but a direct attempt at seduction fails when she tells him that she thinks of him more like a brother (though there is a strong element of "come here/go away" ambiguity in her manner with him). The situation for the Jews keeps getting worse, but the family, who once held some power and influence in the town, keeps thinking that they can ride out this temporary problem, though they do send a younger brother out of the country for schooling. Giorgio's father (Romolo Valli), a member of the ruling Fascist party, also holds to the fatal belief that things can't keep getting worse. The other major character is Malnate (Fabio Testi), a dark hunk of a guy who is not Jewish but is Giorgio's best friend, and who winds up sleeping with Micol, despite her earlier insistence that he is "too hairy" for her tastes. There is a nice irony here in that Testi resembles the stereotype of the dark Jew, and virtually all the major Jewish characters are actually blond and lithe, like the Aryan stereotype (and Testi winds up with a fate as uncertain as any of the Jewish characters when he is conscripted into the Army). Most everyone ignores all signs of the gathering darkness until it's too late. The sickly Alberto dies at home, and Giorgio manages to get out of the country, but most of the rest of the characters are snared in the inevitable roundup of Jews to the camps.

The film, photographed by Ennio Guarnieri, is beautiful to look at, and generally I like the movie quite a bit, but I do agree with the critics who feel that are some problems with the depth of characterization. Some blame the actors, but I think it's more in the writing. We see most of the events of the film through Giorgio's eyes, and he, like the Michael York character in CABARET, is more a passive observer than anything else. The one time he does act decisively, putting the moves on Micol, it's a mistake. Capolicchio, like Michael York, does a good job with a tricky role. Micol is a cold cipher; I never felt like I understood anything she did, but I think Sanda is fine in the part. The biggest problem with the film is Alberto, who is the ultimate passive character--for most of the film, he really does almost nothing. Perhaps he is meant to be a symbol for the passive populace (Jewish and otherwise) who did nothing to stop the terror that would engulf them all, but that would seem to be superfluous symbolism here. Some critics read an incestuous tension between Micol and Alberto, and I can see that, though I think their relationship is more about a general decadence, that of beautiful, powerful people unmoored, with nothing to do and no resources of strength to resist when the times grow dark, only an ability to live in the past; surely it's not an accident that both Micol and Alberto play "Sentimental Journey" on their phonograph. Despite its flaws, this is well worth seeing. There is very little violence in the film, but the brutality of the times is still conveyed effectively. [DVD]

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