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SPECIAL SCREENING

Neglect for the World Kills the Oasis of Haunting 'Garden'

August 25, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition. and

The cinematography for Vittorio De Sica's "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" looks honey-dipped, with its golden colors and summery warmth. The mansion and lush grounds of the Finzi-Contini family are idyllic, the perfect world for all seasons.

What's going on outside the iron gates, however, isn't so nice. It's 1938, the place is Mussolini's Italy, and anti-Semitism is becoming the norm. The Finzi-Continis, an aristocratic, very wealthy Jewish family, ignore the truth for as long as they can in the life they've created in their garden.

The movie--which won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1971 and screens tonight as the finale in the Bowers Museum's Italian film series--is quietly absorbing because De Sica, never a flamboyant director at his peak, is so deliberate.

The creamy, pristine imagery (thanks to celebrated cameraman Ennio Guarnieri) makes a point--when the cinematography becomes harsher at the film's end (and the garden is replaced by a grim detention center)--we see reality fall like a heavy boot.

Until then, though, it's mostly lovely, with the turbulence of fascism rising up, but only from a distance. The pretty facade of "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" continues with De Sica's characters, mostly a group of Jewish college students with patrician features and graceful bodies. They're glamorous in their nonchalance.

Micol (Dominique Sanda), Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), Alberto (Helmut Berger) and Malnate (Fabio Testi) are almost annoyingly attractive, but De Sica wants the symbolism to be clear. It can be too obvious, but the corrupting of their lives is still affecting as the movie goes nimbly down a tragic path.

The story is primarily told by Giorgio, a local boy whose love since childhood for the remote Micol, the only daughter in the Finzi-Contini clan, is rebuffed. Her passionate relationship with Malnate (who is not Jewish) and what happens to her ill brother, Alberto, are the key human events in "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis."

But it's really the loss of innocence as Hitler's "racial purity" perversions take hold that blanches everything. It changes the lives of all the students who visit the Finzi-Continis for tennis and talk, but the family seems strangely out of the loop. They feel they can continue their isolation, and that naivete makes their fall even more precipitous.

The movie is important as a sign post of De Sica's career. After a successful run as a silent matinee idol during the 1920s, De Sica turned serious and became one of the vanguards of the neo-realist movement in Italy. He made acknowledged classics such as "Shoeshine" and "The Bicycle Thief" during the '40s.

Audiences accepted these intentionally unsophisticated pictures as testaments to their own lives, left unsure after the war. But in the '50s they wanted to forget, and more entertaining movies sold tickets. De Sica responded by directing almost exclusively more commercial films, finding success in another way.

But with "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," De Sica returned to his neo-realist inspirations. The movie is far more polished than his earlier, grittier work, but the inspirations are the same. He once again explores human character against a backdrop of social and personal confusion.

* What: Vittorio De Sica's "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis."

* When: Today, Aug. 25, at 7:30 p.m.

* Where: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana.

* Whereabouts: Take the Santa Ana (5) Freeway to 17th Street, head west to Main Street and then go right.

* Wherewithal: $4.50 for adults; $3 for seniors and $1.50 for children 12 and under. Includes museum admission.

* Where to call: (714) 567-3600.

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