Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni star in an epic tale of love and obsession.
Note: Sunflower is not a film of great mysteries, but does have its plot turns. These are, by necessity, discussed in this review. So for those of you who fret about such things, consider this a spoiler alert.
Vittorio de Sica’s sprawling tale of doomed romance from 1970 is a film that has long been in the shadow of the other films made by the director and starring Italian cinema’s dream team of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni – and certainly, films like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style cast very long shadows. But that hardly explains the critical mauling this film received from some quarters when first released and the fact that it is still somewhat overlooked even now. It’s possible, of course, that by 1970, this sort of epic melodrama was out of fashion. But time is a great healer, and Sunflower really ought to be seen as one of the very best films that the three made, either together or separately. Indeed, it is one of the great epics of Italian cinema, an ambitious and emotionally raw work that should be on anyone’s essential viewing list.
Much of the film is told in a series of flashbacks, as we first meet Giovanna (Loren) desperately trying to find information on her husband Antonio (Mastroianni), who was lost in Russia during World War 2. Through these flashbacks, we see how they first met during the war, and how a casual affair turned to marriage – initially as an excuse for him to get twelve days of leave and hopefully avoid being forced into the army and the growing conflict. This marriage of convenience soon turns to genuine love between the pair, and as time runs out, Antonio desperately fakes madness to avoid going back into service. But when he is found out, he is given a stark choice – court martial or ‘volunteering’ for the Russian Front. In Russia (more accurately, Ukraine, though the two countries were joined as part of the Soviet Union at the time), his unit is pathetically unprepared for the arctic conditions and as they flee the Russian army, men start to drop like flies, literally dying as they walk. Eventually, Antonio is unable to go on and is left for dead in the snow.
This is the story that slowly unwinds as the older Giovanna refuses to give up hope. Eventually, she decides that she must go to post-Stalin USSR and search for her husband herself. Despite assurances from the Russian authorities that no Italians remain in the country, she keeps searching… and eventually, her search leads her to a small village where it seems her hope and dreams may finally be shown to be real. But what she finds is not what she expected. Yes, Antonio is alive. But he now has a wife – the woman who rescued him from a frozen death – and a child. Shattered, Giovanna leaves and returns to Italy. But now it is Antonio, faced with a reminder of his past, who feels the need to search for his first wife, even if this costs him his new family and the life that he has settled into.
First and foremost, Sunflower is a big, luscious and admirably unashamed melodrama that cranks the tragedy and the heartbreak up to 11, never more exemplified than in Henry Mancini’s histrionic yet brilliant score that never allows a single emotional point to go unheralded. That’s not a criticism. Far from it. The music of this film signals the grand sense of loss and desperation that underpins the film, and it does so magnificently. This might be the story of two people, but it’s a big film nevertheless. The first Western film to be shot in the Soviet Union, the film feels grand and ambitious, the scope of the production adding to the power of the story rather than overwhelming it. The scenes on the Russian Front, for example, are among the most harrowing and despondent war movie scenes ever shot, the lost soldiers hopelessly marching through freezing conditions, dropping dead every few moments and unable to find a moments respite (stop moving and you freeze to death in minutes).
Yet at the heart of the film is the love story, and more importantly, the question of what is love. The film carefully doesn’t demonise Antonio for abandoning Giovanna. For her, time stopped when he left for Russia and could not move forward until he was either found or proven to be dead (when anyone suggests that he must be dead, she flies into a rage of denial). For her, things have remained the same since their idyllic two weeks together. But for Antonio, life as he knew it ended the moment he left Italy – or at least the moment he collapsed in the snow to die. When Maria (Lyudmila Savelyeva) pulled him from the snow, he was essentially resurrected – a new man with a new life, his past literally forgotten (we are told he had no memory of the past for some time). Who is to say which of these people – if either of them – is in the right? Equally, it is a tortured memory of what was, in reality, a brief affair, one that might have fizzled out in no time had the marriage of convenience taken place, that sends Antonio back to Italy, abandoning the woman with whom he has spent several years (the film is rather vague about its timeline) and has a child in the hope of rekindling a love long since dead. Of course, this time, it is Giovanna who has moved on.
Essentially, Sunflower is the story of a search for an idealized past – either one clung to or one suddenly remembered – that damages both of those caught up in it. Antonio was clearly happy until Giovanna appeared to remind him of what he had left behind. And Giovanna only starts to live her life again when she discovers that Antonio has forgotten her. Both parties essentially torment each other with clung-to dreams of a life they never even experienced together.
Loren and Mastroianni were, of course, long-term screen partners by the time this film was shot, but while there is an obvious chemistry between them, they manage to make the very specific and damaged relationship between their characters believable. Both give magnificent performances – Loren, either youthful and vibrant or older and obsessed, is fantastic, giving a passionate, emotive and heartbreaking performance. Her quiet desperation, her angry outbursts, her breakdowns and the moments where she can barely hold herself together as hope and disappointment continually collide all feel extraordinarily real. And Mastroianni is every bit as good – a man who can seem stoic and yet display complete emotional torment and yearning just in his eyes. That we don’t see either of these people as being wrong for the decisions that they make – even the ones that are, by any definition, very wrong indeed – in testament to their talents at creating real people out of these characters. For all de Sica’s visual grandeur and emotional manipulation, it is the two leads who ultimately make this a forgotten masterpiece.
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