Sunflower (I girasoli)
Italy (1970) Dir. Vittorio De Sica
In the late 1940’s/50’s Vittorio De Sica was at the forefront of the Italian Neo-Realist movement with his string of seminal gritty, social commentary dramas such as Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine and Umberto D. By the time the 60’s had arrived De Sica’s films had slipped into a more conventional mode but the social commentary was still very much present.
For this 1970 film, De Sica combines elements of the two for this tale, told partly in flashback, about a love destroyed by war. The principal players are Giovanna (Sophia Loren) and Antonio (Marcello Mastroianni), a young couple at the start of World War II who try to circumvent Antonio’s inevitable mandatory conscription.
Getting married buys them twelve days but it goes by too quickly so they try the more desperate tact of Antonio pretending to be mad but the ruse fails and he is shipped of to the Russian Front. When the war is over, Antonio is one of many soldiers not to come home but loyal Giovanna refuses to believe he is dead. After meeting a surviving soldier from Antonio’s squad (Glauco Onorato), Giovanna travels to Russia in order to either find her husband or learn the truth of his fate.
Sunflower takes a while to get going, the first act flashback being light and playful, not particularly indicative of what is to come. When Antonio is finally sent away the levity goes with him and the mood is resolutely downbeat hereon after, something which critics at the time observed and held against this film. Considering the subject matter one wonders if they were expecting a slapstick comedy instead!
It is probably just as well that De Sica adapted his Neo Realism style in line with the changes in cinema otherwise this film would arguably have made less of an emotional impact than it did, instead it might have depressed us all into submission. He didn’t completely abandon this style however, his use of genuine footage from the war shot in Russia satisfies this remit with great effect.
Mixed in with staged battle scenes this footage appears as the returning soldier tells Giovanna of the fate he believes befell the injured Antonio, having left him for dead in the snow after their base had been destroyed. Later when Giovanna is in Russia she visits a field of sunflowers, each one representing those who died in the war, taking in all nationalities and the innocent natives.
The harrowing, grainy black and white shots of the dead bodies is hard to watch as it is but within the context of Giovanna’s plight, the directness of the intent behind including them sets not just Giovanna but the audience for the grim reality of the worst outcome to her search. This saves its use from being veiled – or even blatant – propaganda instead providing an illuminating reminder of the senseless waste of life such conflicts incur.
As if to lift the mood and offer a glimmer of hope, there is the almost predictable plot development in Antonio actually still being alive and well, and now with a new love, a younger Russian woman Masha (Lyudmila Savelyeva), and a daughter. Being nearly frozen to death caused Antonio to lose his memory of everything (so how did Masha learn his name if even he forgotten it?) meaning the patiently waiting and devoted Giovanna is not even a factor for him any longer.
From here we follow Giovanna as she tries to move on with her life, something Giovanna’s mother (Anna Carena) objects to, but if her husband doesn’t recognise or remember her what else is there for her? From one struggle to another Giovanna’s resolve is put to the test as she tries to look forward but can’t help but occasionally look back over her shoulder, just in case.
De Sica may have been in the twilight of his filmmaking career but he was still able to pull off a first with Sunflower, this being the first Western film to be shot in Russia. Aside from the authenticity it brings to the Russian set scenes it allows us to see the titular sunflower in all its glory, and for De Sica to shoot it in many different ways, creating a series of tableaux that suggest a number of stories behind the field and the individual flowers.
After a patchy start with the scenes of our fated couple trying to prolong the agony of their separation, the film hits its stride once Giovanna begins her painful journey to find her husband. It seems even De Sica feels more inspired by this change in story direction and tone, the stepping up of the energy and intensity is noticeable, as is the staging and composition of many of the shots. De Sica uses both light and dark, space and confinement, noise and silence to great effect, supplemented by an emotional musical score from Henry Mancini.
The film hinges largely on Sophia Loren’s performance, in which she takes Giovanna from an archetypal Italian firebrand to a distraught woman with a purpose and finally a heartbroken lost soul trying to put the piece of her life together again. Throughout the film Giovanna is resolute but vulnerable and Loren willingly leaves the glamour behind to immerse herself in this role.
Marcello Mastroianni is another De Sica/Loren veteran collaborator, so the chemistry was instant in both cases. Initially Antonio doesn’t seem much of a role but in the latter half, Mastroianni is given much more to work with and joins Loren in ringing the emotion out of their scenes together. Lyudmila Savelyeva offers competent support as Masha, despite looking a bit too young for the role.
Once it gets past the slightly clumsy first act Sunflower may be the maudlin melodrama many accused it of being, but De Sica’s masterly control turns that misery into a powerful evocative and genuine feeling work.