A brilliant, subtle yet lucid film. The historical context is the rise of fascism in Italy in the late thirties and early forties, but the essential subject is human insularity. The main characters are Jews of distinguished or at least unusual wealth. Within this group there is a contrast between the moderately wealthy family of Giorgio, the hero, and the great elegance, social superiority, and evident large fortune of the Finzi-Continis, aristocrats whose mansion and walled garden and estate are the essential setting of the film and deliver up its essential meaning. Behind these walls of stone and metaphor, a closed society exists, blithely unaware of the foreboding changes taking place outside.
The film is in part a love story concerning Giorgio and his childhood sweetheart Michol Finzi-Contini, developed by flash-back; they are now graduate students, writing theses on Italian and American poets. But Giorgio’s love is unreturned; in fact Michol seems incapable of loving anyone, really, although she has an affection for her sickly brother. Giorgio has a brother too — younger — who is sent off to school in Grenoble later in the film, as the Fascist anti-Semite laws begin to close in. The parallel brothers serve, as a motif, to underline the sense of inbreeding that pervades the film. In a climactic scene in which Michol tells Giorgio she is not in love with him, she asks him not to spoil the memory of their childhood. “To make love with you would be like making love with my brother.” The common culture that, one would have thought, afforded a common identity here serves only to isolate — to isolate these people as a group from exterior reality and to isolate them individually from one another.
The supreme example of this isolation is Michol. She is beautiful; she could be extremely passionate, one thinks, but she is ambivalent, not exactly cold, yet not really approachable. Even in the scene where Giorgio, irresistibly drawn to her, climbs the garden wall and discovers her, nude, in the carriage house with the friend he met at tennis here; the friend is asleep and she is sitting with her back to the corner of the wall, defiantly alone — discovered in deceit yet unwilling and unable to explain herself. And then events move in, the Fascists round up all Jews, the families are separated, the film ends.
Pictorially the film is excellent. The visual motifs of rectangular enclosures — walls, tennis courts, rooms, courtyards, libraries—manage to carry the theme well. There is a good amount of photographing almost directly into light, especially sunlight, and the consequent glare suggests the harshness of exterior reality. The last sequence is simply a series of shots of the Finzi-Contini estate, ending with a close shot of the wire mesh surrounding the tennis court. The shot renders the subject unidentifiable for a moment, long enough for us to think of Dachau (mentioned late in the film, where we meet a survivor when Giorgio goes to visit his brother in Grenoble); then the camera pulls back, and we see that it is the familiar tennis court. That it is familiar comes as a relief, but with it comes the irony that familiar scenes orient us toward the past and so isolate us from the terrible realities of the present and the future.