American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," as nearly as I can tell, is not an enclosed space but an enclosed state of mind. Eager for an afternoon of tennis, the young people ride into it on their bicycles one sunny Sunday afternoon. The Fascist government of Mussolini has declared the ordinary tennis clubs off limits for Italian Jews -- but what does that matter, here behind these tall stone walls that have faithfully guarded the Finzi-Contini family for generations?
Micol, the daughter, welcomes her guests and gives some of them a little tour: That tree over there is said to be five hundred years old and might even have been planted by the Borgias. If it has stood for all those years in this garden, she seems to believe, what is there to worry about in the world outside?
She is a tall blonde girl with a musical laugh and a way of turning away from a man just as he reveals himself to her. Giorgio, who has been helplessly in love with her since they were both children, deceives himself that she loves him. But she cannot quite love anyone, although she carries on an affair with a tall, athletic young man who is about to be drafted into the army. Giorgio's father says of the Finzi-Continis: "They're different. They don't even seem to be Jewish." They're different because wealth and privilege and generations of intellectual and social position have bred them into a family as proud as it is vulnerable. The other Jews in the town react to Mussolini's edicts in various ways: Giorgio is enraged; his father is philosophical. But the Finzi-Continis hardly seem to know, or care, what is happening. They are above mere edicts; they chose to live behind their walls long before the Fascists said they must.
This is the situation as Vittorio De Sica sketches it for us at the outset of "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," which was a true surprise from a director who had seemed to lose his early genius. De Sica's previous two or three films (especially the disastrous "A Place for Lovers") were embarrassments from the director of "The Bicycle Thief" and "Shoeshine."