We are here on this 21st Maine International Film Festival to see Vittorio De Sica’s great 1970 motion picture, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” scripted by Vittorio Bonicelli and Ugo Pirro, based on Giorgio Bassani’s novel of the same title.

The film, splendidly photographed by Ennio Guarnieri, won the Golden Bear at the 21st Berlin International Film Festival in 1971, and went on to take the 1972 Academy Award for Foreign Language Film.

For Dominique Sanda, this year’s MIFF Lifetime Achievement Award winner, it was her first Italian feature film after which she shook the European film world with her performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.”

When first we see her, she fully inhabits the warm body and cold soul of Micol Finzi-Contini, the very tall, very blonde daughter of the Finzi-Contini family of Ferrara, Italy — a wealthy, intellectual, sophisticated and Jewish family who, as we meet them in 1938, are living out the last years of their lives on the edges of the rise of fascism in Italy.

Micol is a vision of soft, cream-colored skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, dressed in tennis whites standing on the neglected tennis court in the garden of her family home. She is surrounded by beauty, but we can look at nothing but Micol.

Up the road, a covey of young Italians also bedecked in tennis whites soar down the road out of the surrounding lush landscape, laughing and shouting as they head toward the gates of the garden of the Finzi-Contini estate to join Micol in a friendly tournament. It is the end of a troubled decade with worse to come. They are young, they are ambitious, they are handsome and happy.

They study medicine, the law and writing, and they are about to enter a world where, because they are Jews, they will be slowly denied access to the fruits of their labor, unable to practice their arts, and with the passing of each day, some freedom, some choice, some class or job or effort is being taken away from them.

They have yet to accept any of this. In fact, they accept little but that tennis is at four and dinner at eight.

We are in the garden of the Finzi-Contini family, a garden not unlike Eden, packed with rare trees and plants, strolling peacocks. It is a garden so isolated from the real world that even the wind in the trees sounds like music.

We are in Ferrara, a small and quiet town as far from the gates of Dachau, 10 miles northwest of Munich where death is manufactured, as from the moon, and as far from Auschwitz in Oswiecim in southern Poland where the gates are unlike the lovely ones that surround this garden.

The very young here laugh and play like characters from the pages of “The Great Gatsby.” Their families dine with inherited silver and on food served by gentile servants.

De Sica (“The Bicycle Thief,” “Shoeshine” with Bassani) gives us a wide pallet of diverse characters, especially a light as air Micol, the golden light that all the boys circle around like fortunate moths.

In the first part of the movie, the horrors to come are distant clouds, but fear hangs in the air.

Among the young is one of my personal favorites, the estimable Helmut Berger — who was best known as the star of Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” — as Alberto, Micol’s ailing brother.

There is Lino Capolicchio as the painfully sensitive and naive Giorgio, a middle-class graduate student who adores the cool, elusive Micol, who, from their teenage years when he rode his bicycle to these walls, toyed with his heart. Still, even now, Giorgio patiently embraces the fantasy that she secretly loves him.

Giorgio’s family are middle-class Italians of business who live far outside the garden gates. It is Giorgio’s father (Romolo Valli) who distrusts the Finzi-Continis, saying “They’re different, they don’t even seem to be Jewish.” The more we watch them stroll in the gilded twilight of their gardens, we see his point.

The end of all this will come, not like an ancient pogrom, with slashing swords, but slowly like a fever that slips even under the gates of the garden of the Finzi-Continis.

De Sica handles the final moments with a soft, dark hand. Suitcases are packed, dark clothing donned, goodbyes whispered. The gates of the garden are thrown open to the streets.

The last one down from the upstairs rooms is Micol. The others, waiting for her, stand quietly as if posing for a camera. She is still lovely, blonde and blue eyed as she stands silently on the steps as she did on the courts surrounded by the beauty of the past, the tennis whites replaced by a long dark coat.

The elegance of the great hall remains, the chandeliers and polished floors glow in filtered light. But we can look at nothing but Micol.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and film actor.

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