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.

When we recommended to a neighbor that she watch the Marcello Mastroianni-Jack Lemmon film “Macaroni,” she countered by referring us to the 1964 movie “Marriage Italian Style,” in which Mastroianni stars with Sophia Loren. I had seen it about 40 years ago, but didn’t remember anything about it.

Filmed in Italian in Naples, this is the story of an amoral businessman who meets a teen-aged prostitute in a brothel during an Allied bombing raid, and then makes her his mistress when they meet again several years later. Domenico Soriano (Mastroianni) is in the baking business, and he puts Filumina Maturano (Loren) in charge of one of his stores while he keeps her — outside his home — in a very comfortable style. Filumena is not satisfied with this arrangement and she pressures “Dummi,” as she calls him, both to publicly acknowledge her and to make her a part of his household. Step-by-step she gains concessions  that include a room in his house and recognition as the “lady” of the premises, but she does not get the final prize, marriage, until she employs a  subterfuge that blows up in her face.

Domenico’s passion for Filumena degrades into disgust, and he takes up a relationship with a young cashier at one of his shops.

Meanwhile, Filumena has a secret of her own — actually, three — namely a trio of sons she has borne as a result of her career, one of them by the unwitting Domenico.

This film, directed by Vittorio De Sica and filmed in the earthy Neapolitan environment, is a combination of farce, tawdry melodrama, and implausible plot, that can’t be taken seriously. Considering the lengths De Sica went to in order to exploit Loren’s legendary physique – as opposed to the weight of her acting – the Oscar she won as “best actress in a foreign film”  seems farcical in itself.

Having said that, I can report that the movie, taken for what it is, is funny and entertaining. The surroundings, whether indoor or out, are engaging, and Mastroianni himself is hard to completely dislike in any role. In this case, except for the ludicrous conclusion, he is worth watching as the rake trying to avoid the consequences of a misspent adulthood.

Marcello Mastroianni in a tight spot in "Macaroni"

“Macaroni” — a 1985 film starring Jack Lemmon and Marcello Mastroianni — is an offbeat story set in always-interesting Naples. Lemmon plays Robert Traven, a careworn airline official who visits Naples for a business meeting after being absent since he served there with the U.S. military during World War II. Traven has no sooner flopped, exhausted, in his hotel room when he is disturbed by a visit from Antonio Jasoniello, who claims that not only were he and Traven acquainted during the war but that Traven had a romance with Jasoniello’s sister. Traven rudely denies ever having known Jasoniello or the sister, even when Jasoniello produces a snapshot of the Yankee soldier and the bella ragazza.

 After chasing Jasoniello away, Traven has second thoughts and seeks the man out, purportedly to apologize and to return the snapshot. He finds Jasoniello working in the refrigerated archives of the Bank of Naples, and what he may have intended to be a perfunctory visit turns into an increasingly complicated relationship with the whole Jasoniello clan — including Jasoniello’s son, a would-be rock musician who is a little reckless about how he tries to jump start his career.

Traven is puzzled by the fact that he is recognized and called by name by a succession of strangers in Jasoniello’s neighborhood. Jasoniello shrugs this off, but Traven eventually learns that his celebrity status was deliberately concocted and maintained for four decades by Jasoniello himself. Therein lies a touching and hilarious story.

“Macaroni” (I can’t account for that title) has a talented and almost entirely Italian cast. Mastroianni himself, of course, was the quintessential Italian film actor, though the combination of his heavy accent and the less-than-ideal sound quality on this DVD made him at times difficult to understand. Pairing him with Lemmon was a wise decision, and the movie is entertaining and uplifting.