Netflix Update No. 54: “Sunflower”

October 22, 2011

Having dabbled with Marcello Mastroianni in Macaroni and Marriage Italian Style, we went to the well once more in the form Sunflower, a film we had never heard of. The results were mixed.

This film, made in 1970, was the last directed by Vittorio De Sica, and —significantly — it was the first western film shot, in part, in the Soviet Union. Mastroianni, who was 46 when this movie was made, plays Antonio, a happy-go-lucky Neapolitan who is drafted into the Italian army during World War II. He is not a willing conscript, and his valor isn’t helped by the fact that he is in the middle of passionate fling with Giovanna, played by 36-year-old Sophia Loren.  His attempt, with Giovanna’s connivance, to avoid military service results in a court-martial and his deployment to the Russian front — which was a brutal fate thanks to both the Red Army and the merciless winters.

When the war ends, Antonio doesn’t return, but Giovanna is convinced that he is still alive. After failing to get any satisfaction from public authorities, she travels to Russia to look for him. It’s not a spoiler to say she finds him, inasmuch as Mastroianni is the co-star. Some may find the circumstances and outcome predictable; some may not.

Watching this film, which has Italian dialogue and English subtitles, is an uneven experience. Mastroianni and Loren are an irresistible combination, and they play their  parts well, but the story itself is at times melodramatic and implausible. In what seems to have been an overreaching attempt to project the character’s moods, Loren is made to look at times as if she’s 30 and at other times as if she’s 50.

The photography in both Italy and Russia is eye-catching, and there is a very effective scene in which Giovanna visits a Russian hillside that is dotted with hundreds of wooden crosses marking the graves of Italian soldiers. The film also has a wonderful score by Henry Mancini that was nominated for an Oscar.


5 Responses to “Netflix Update No. 54: “Sunflower””

  1. So…you are on a De Sica kick?! I just reviewed the Bicycle Thief for an Italian Catholic website. I bet they would enjoy your reviews chuck. By the way, did you go to hs with a man named Didieo? He pitched for the Yankees for one year and now I work with his daughter.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I’ve actually been on a Mastroianni kick. I don’t think the Yankees ever had a pitcher named Didieo, but there was a Jim Didieo in Mets farm system for a while. He never played in the bigs.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    In the process of trying to figure out what role the sunflower plays in all this, I read a number of other reviews. I had to laugh – by the time Vincent Canby got done with the film in his 1970 NYT review, yours sounds positively upbeat and laudatory.

    I never did find a reference to the sunflowers, but they sound very nice. 😉

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I think there is an exchange in the film in which someone tells Loren’s character that there is a sunflower in the field for every Italian soldier who died in battle. When we were in east-central Italy in June, we saw massive fields of sunflowers just like the ones shown in this movie. I have read some devastating reviews of this movie, including Canby’s.

  3. Chuck: I stand corrected re: didieo. His daughter says he had the opportunity to play in the majors but decided it was not a good life for raising children.
    Anyway, I thought you might know him from Paterson.

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