I first saw The Garden of the Finzi Continis when I was about 12. It made an indelible impression on my youthful mind. C. S. Lewis discussed the value of rereading good books, and Leland Ryken has discussed the inexhaustibility of good literature. As you age, you change. When you reread a good book, it has newer significance, not because the book has changed, but because you have changed. There's a dialectical relationship, where literature can influence your outlook on life while life can influence your outlook on the literature. Same is true for great movies.
The Garden of the Finzi Continis isn't for everyone, but it struck a chord with me. Several features account for its power:
i) The film is a cinematic adaptation of the book. A great director directing a great novel. A masterpiece of a masterpiece.
ii) Although it's fictional, it is semiautobiographical. That lends the film a particular poignancy, because the film commemorates a genuine tragedy. The characters represent Bassani's ill-fated friends and relatives, who perished in the Shoah.
iii) Both film and novel benefit from the central, master metaphor of a garden. That's a unifying principle. And it supplies a tacit commentary on the significance of the action.
The garden exists outside history, in illo tempore. A timeless world. A world within a world. Time's passage inside and outside the garden doesn't synchronize. It's more like stepping into a parallel universe. Has affinities with Eliade's myth of eternal return. Time is cyclical inside the garden, but linear outside the garden.
The story begins with two times, but converges. The action moves towards the merging of two times, as the inexorable march of time outside the garden finally breaches the walled garden, whisking its occupants away to the death camps. The garden lulls its occupants into a sense of false security.
Although the story is set in Bassani's hometown, if you visit Ferrara you don't find a garden of the Finzi-Continis. Not even in ruins. It's a place that only existed in Bassani's imagination. Given how much of Bassani's fiction has concrete counterparts in reality, we might ask why he invented the garden.
But perhaps that's the point. Because the garden never existed, it represents an illusion. The illusion of Bassani's fellow Jews, who refused to acknowledge the existential threat that was bearing down on them. A fatal state of mind.
iv) Since there was no garden of the Finzi-Continis in Ferrara, what was Bassani's source of inspiration? Bassani's garden naturally evokes associations with the primeval garden of Eden. And there seem to be studied similarities with the paradise lost motif. When Micol expels him from the garden, when the Finzi-Continis are themselves expelled, that's reminiscent of man's banishment from paradise.
Yet the comparison invites contrast. Bassani's garden doesn't represent life before the fall. Giorgio's pursuit and passion for Micol has has affinities with another Biblical garden: the erotic garden of Canticles. It may also be indebted to the courtly, chivalric tradition of The Roman de la Rose.
Perhaps the closest parallel is with Tasso, Bassani's fellow Ferrarese poet, in his Gerusalemme liberata. Micol is like Armida, the seductress and sorceress who takes crusaders captive in her enchanted garden. A femme fatal.
So Bassani's garden is a false Eden. Expulsion from Bassani's garden signifies the expulsion of Italian Jews from society, and ultimately from life itself.
v) Which brings us to the enigmatic figure of Micol. Both film critics and literary critics puzzle over Micol. Pauline Kael faulted the movie on two grounds: She found Micol's behavior inscrutable, as well as the passivity of the Finzi-Continis in the face of mortal danger.
As a fictional character, it's possible that there is no one correct interpretation of Micol. Perhaps the characterization is inconsistent. An artistic failure–albeit compelling. However, I think we can offer a more charitable and coherent interpretation.
Micol is the central character. The hub, in relation to which other characters are the spokes. Gorgeous, spoiled, proud, imperious, and mercurial. A tease. Her treatment of Giorgio betrays a cruel streak, as she leads him on, only to rebuff him. An unattainable woman.
There may be an element of contempt for his indecision. Sometimes she gives him an opening, but Giorgio is so spellbound that he takes too long in responding to her overtures. He lets the moment slip away. And having missed the opportunity, he rarely gets a second chance. By contrast, Malnate has none of Giorgio's hesitation.
Micol is too worldly for Giorgio. He's a romantic to her cynic. She spurns him because he loves her, and she wants to avoid emotional entanglements. Remain independent. Be a woman, but not a wife or mother. So she has a fling with Malnate instead. That preserves her detachment. A purely physical relationship, with no strings attached. That's symbolized by the fact that he's Gentile and she's Jewish. Due to the race laws, they can't marry. Not that she'd ever marry somebody like him. Malnate is her social interior, and culturally Philistine. But he serves his purpose. The fact, moreover, that men of draft age will be conscripted ensures the impermanence of the liaison.
The Finzi-Continis are paradoxical. Unlike many Jews, they refuse to assimilate. Yet their aloofness isn't due to religious scruples. They seem to be Pharisees without faith, like Santayana's The Last Puritan. A secularized parody of ritual cleanliness.
Ironically, their Jewishness is more important to the Nazi gentiles than it is to these nominal Jews. In another irony, Micol and Alberto are the epitome of blond, blue-eyed, ivory Aryan perfection. So close to the Nazi ideal.
Another reason she may make no effort to save herself is that any other life would be a comedown from what she has known. She's the goddess of her enchanted garden. But her youthful beautiful will fade. To marry and bear children would demote her. Make her intolerably ordinary.
There's a hint of incest between Micol and Alberto. It seems to be psychological rather than physical. But it reflects the fact that no one else is good enough for her. Only a god is fit to be the consort of a goddess. Yet by having an affair with her brother's best friend, there's a sense in which she snubs Alberto as much as Giorgio.
When they're finally rounded up, that's a leveling experience–as they suddenly share captivity as Giorgio's father. It humanizes her.
But there may be yet another reason for her erratic behavior. A sense of foreboding and futility. She has no future in this world. Her generation is doomed. Alberto's degenerative illness symbolizes the loss of hope. Her frustration may also account, in part, for her mean treatment of Giorgio.
Yet, in a way she may feel that she's sparing his feelings in the long run. He can't have her because she's doomed. They are not allowed to have a life together. Circumstances conspire against them, even if the feeling was mutual. She drove him away to save him. Nearly vicarious. She takes his place.
This may, however, reflect a difference between Bassani's understanding of Micol and de Sica's. De Sica's interpretation may soften the character.
Ultimately, though, I think Micol is a conflicted character because she's an emblematic character. She represents the excruciating paralysis of action that Bassani witnessed firsthand, as Italian Jews allowed events to overtake them. Their passivity, their denial, sealed their fate–in a self-fulfilling destiny.
Bassani himself had an opportunity to escape, but he, along with his brother Paolo, stayed behind to participate in the resistance. He was able to rescue his sister and parents, but the remainder of his relatives and Jewish neighbors perished in the death camps. That haunted him for the rest of his life, and Micol is the projection of that fatal indecision.
They had different survival strategies. Giorgio's father (who was modeled on Bassani's own father) tries to shield his family by playing the role of the loyal fascist and patriot. But in the end, that's not enough.
Italian Jews were blindsided because Nazism was foreign. A witch's brew of German philosophy and mythology. Traditional Italian anti-Semitism was theological rather than racial, and it was far less threatening. But Mussolini's pact with Hitler interjected that alien ideology onto Italian soil.
vi) Because the viewpoint of the characters is prospective, while the viewpoint of the audience is retrospective, that generates dramatic tension. The audience knows the cataclysm that awaits the characters before they do. By the time it catches up with them, it's too late to escape.
vii) To my knowledge, Bassani was a secular Jew. The Holocaust left him shattered. Had it not been for the Holocaust, he would have been a minor writer, but that event lent tragic weight and moral focus to his writing. Yet all he could do, from within his worldly vantage-point, was to commemorate and document the cataclysm. He felt it should be meaningful, but he had no transcendent frame of reference. Even if his friends and relatives hadn't died in the Holocaust, they'd all be dead by now. Death by "natural causes."
Like an anthill struck by lightning. The ants scurry about, surveying the devastation. Collecting the dead. Repairing the damage. Starting over again. But the cosmos is sublimely indifferent to their plight. It's their little tragedy. But in due time, all things pass. People come and go. They take their place in the vast invisible cemetery of time's forgotten lives. There is no moral urgency. In the end, everyone who cared about the dead is dead. Time erases everything.
There is no hope in this world. Like an empty nautilus shell, it curves in on itself, leading to a dead-end. Hope can only come from the outside, breaking into the cycle of despair.