This is my story about how I discovered The Garden of The Finzi-Continis, a story about Italian Jews in World War II by Giogio Bassani.
I became acquainted with Micòl the year I turned 14. A beautiful, blond Italian Jew, I guess you could say she kept me company every day after school for more than a year. Twenty-five more years would pass, however, before I received the message she intended for me: Racial and religious persecution can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
From the fall of 1981 to the spring of 1983, every day after school was the same. I’d cross a highway, pass a cemetery, count at least 48 World War II era houses – most of them painted white – and finally arrive home to an empty house on State Street. This was Kansas. Some days were bitter-colder than others. This only meant I walked faster.
And, some days, I was more afraid than others, which only meant I walked faster and did not look behind me.
I was a typical latchkey adolescent. I’d catch a few minutes of fuzzy, rural-reception TV; maybe talk to a friend on our rotary dial phone, and then stand in front of the kitchen sink and wash all the dishes before my parents arrived home from work.
While I washed the dishes I listened to Debby Boone’s 1977 album, You Light Up My Life on an 8-track tape player my brother Billy, a Marine, sent me from Okinawa. My favorite song on the album was the third track, Micòl’s Theme.
I memorized all the words to the ballad, and for nearly three decades have returned to it again and again. I sing it on the rare, long drive across country or occasionally at night when I put my kids to bed.
Recently, my daughter, who is starting guitar lessons, asked me to help her find some new songs to learn, and I suggested Micòl’s Theme. And just like that, I was no longer content with the mystery, and I put my mind to discovering exactly who was Micòl? After all, she spent all that time with me. And I’ve thought about her so many times over the years, just as I have thought about my 14-year-old self, latchkey, but not lost; alone, but never lonely. My imagination and dreams were faithful, and kept me great company.
So, I discovered that in 1962, Giorgio Bassani wrote the partly autobiographical The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a haunting classic novel of Facist Italy on the brink of World War II.
In 1970, Vittorio De Sica, directed the film of the same title starring the still-stunning and unforgettable French actress Dominique Sanda in the role of Micòl. Italian actor and director Lino Capolicchio played the part of Giorgio. It won the 1971 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Finzi-Continis are an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family living in Ferrara, Italy when the government passes anti-Semitic legislation. The family, which includes the provocative college-aged daughter, Micòl, is caught up in an ironic mix of denial, idyll days and fear, if not resignation. They self-barricade behind the walls of their massive estate, but eventually, in 1943, are rounded up and sent to Germany. None of them survive the war.
On the surface, the film is about unrequited love, but I have read enough holocaust literature to know that it is about so much more than Micòl rebuffing the grown up affections of her childhood friend Giorgio. As one editorial review so eloquently stated, the novel is about a “tragic era in which not even nobility could outrun the events let alone admit they needed to.”
Who among us could fathom such atrocities?
So, it is that Micòl refuses to return Giorgio’s love, not because she races across the night to literally give away the love he always thought belonged to him, but because she has some sense of the doom that awaits her family. She foresees the outcome of Nazi-Facist persecutions and does not want to pollute the precious and innocent childhood memories she shares with Giorgio. And, who can blame her?
Lyrics To Micòl’s Theme
Like children on a swing
We floated through the summer air
A time to laugh
A time to play
The author, Giorgio Bassani, who grieved for Jews who had no grave at all, died in 2000, and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara. That cemetery was the setting of the prologue to his novel. And, really, it was not Micòl who spent those afternoons washing dishes with me, but Bassani, who told her story, and tells it still for us all to hear and see and read.
At least 8,000 Italian Jews perished as a result of the Nazi-Facist persecutions.
Songwriter Joseph Brooks, 71, composed the plangent Micòl’s Theme for The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. However, he is better known for writing the smash hit You Light Up My Life recorded by Debby Boone. Micòl’s theme is the third track on the album.
This year, 2010, is the 40th anniversary of the film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. It is available through Amazon and Netflix. Today, amidst war, rumors of war and lingering war, the ballad and the story of Micòl Finzi-Contini is a timely rememberance: Religious and racial persecution can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
From Micòl’s Theme
Micol, there was a time for us
Long ago, there was a time for us
When the fields were green and the sun was warm
And the days of love and laughter went on and on…
You can listen to Micol’s Theme on You Tube.