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The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

These days, if someone asked you to name an award-winning foreign film about Italian Jews during World War II, chances are Life is Beautiful would be the first title to come to mind. But back in the early '70s, it was director Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis that was picking up Oscars and earning accolades. Named Best Foreign Language Film in 1971, Garden eschews Life's heartstring-pulling mix of humor and pathos in favor of quiet, perfectly crafted drama. The result is a film that's no less affecting than its laugh-filled cousin. Extraordinarily well-acted, the movie — based on the novel by Giorgio Bassani — takes viewers behind the high walls of the privileged Finzi-Continis, one of the most aristocratic Jewish families in Ferrara. When the film opens, they're still mostly sheltered from the impending war and Mussolini's anti-Semitic decrees. Whiling away the summer days at her family's huge, lush estate, golden girl Micol (Dominique Sanda), a confident, high-spirited beauty, plays endless games of tennis with her brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) and their friends, and flirts openly with childhood friend Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio). But as time passes — and the situation outside the garden worsens — Micol's pastoral life starts falling apart. Her brother sickens; her friends go off to war and die, or, worse, get taken in by the police for questioning and don't come back. And Giorgio, her beloved friend, wants to be something more — it is a love she doesn't share. When the fascists and their war finally breach the garden, it's a final offense against the beauty and passions its walls had sheltered. De Sica's powerful direction, combined with Italy's sun-kissed locations and flawless performances from Sanda and Capolicchio, as well as Romolo Valli as Giorgio's stubbornly patriotic father, makes The Garden of the Finzi-Continis a powerful, poignant look at the fall of an ideal — a last-ditch effort to find pleasure and happiness in the face of impending terror. The film has aged well and looks lovely on Columbia TriStar's DVD, despite the fact that its graininess — and many scratches — show up all too clearly in the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The digitally mastered audio (Dolby 2.0 stereo in Italian with optional English subtitles) is clear, but at times appears out of sync with what the actors are saying on screen. Features include filmographies for De Sica, Sanda, and Berger, plus scene selection and trailers for other Columbia TriStar films on DVD. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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