Vittorio De Sica is at the forefront of Europe’s most accessible filmmakers of the 20th century and that’s because the stories he crafts are heartfelt, moving, and also enter comical territory with ease. Sunflower pairs him once again with two of Italy’s Titans Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, and as you would expect the film starts off full of passion, playfulness, and a little pasta. It’s the dawn of WWII and the frisky pair is in love, deciding to get a quick marriage so they might get a 12 day leave before Antonio has to ship out.
In a sense, this is a kind of war film, because Anto gets sent off to the Russian Front and we get a glimpse of the harsh realities there. We are treated to some newsreel style war footage all the while veiled with a billowing red flag. Sunflower is not a film about the politics of the war per se, but rather the effect that war has on people and their relationships. It can heighten passion, tear people apart, and change lives for good.
When the news comes home that the war is over, there is a flood of relief and then everyone including Giovanna (Sophia Loren) frantically begins the search for their kith and kin. Worried mothers and wives bring their long-cherished photos into train stations clinging to the hope that just one person passing by will be able to give them some fragment of hope. That’s what Giovanni gets and it’s not much, but a jaded soldier who suffered alongside Anto tells her the last time they were together, he was freezing to death in the snow. Her first reaction is to berate him, but he’s too tired to care by now. So she prepares for the journey to Russia to find the whereabouts of her long-lost love. She will not take no for an answer, but what she finds is more painful than even she could expect. It’s a different type of scar, a different type of hurt that no one could foresee.
In some respects, Sunflower feels like a precursor to Life is Beautiful (1997), because both films are full of hopefulness, but they both exist as heart-wrenching stories. They deliver the same moving swells of emotion, but for different reasons. Sunflower ends up feeling a little like Umbrellas of Cherbourg in its tragedy. But the title seems to suggest, maybe, just maybe, like the old adage says, out of the ashes beauty can still rise. All the pain and suffering are only the fertilizer for flowers to spring up from the desolated earth. A memorial of what has happened, but also a harbinger for the future.
This is truly an international film because although it’s in Italian, it was partially shot in Russia (a first for the USSR) and features Russian performer Lyudmila Savelyeva in a prominent role. But the lovely score comes courtesy of America’s own Henry Mancini, rounding out this film perfectly. It’s another pleasant surprise from Vittorio De Sica.