Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, in their prime would be enough to attract any warm-blooded movie goer, much less an Italo-cinephile. When the story also has to do with Italian soldiers living, dying and disappearing at the Russian front in WW II it turns into a must-see for me. The Italians were at the Russian front?
A cursory recall of high school history will say it was probably true: Germany attacked Russia the summer of 1941; the Italians were Germany’s allies; Mussolini had a lot to prove; ergo there must have been Italians fighting Russians, under German orders. I just hadn’t read, seen or known it. The great Vittorio De Sica, in his 1970 Sunflower begins to set me straight. Not only his lead male character, Antonio [Marcello Mastroianni], but 235,000 soldiers fought in the Italian Army in Russia. 114,520 died. 54,400 were taken as prisoners of war following the brutal winter battles comprising Operation Little Saturn, itself part of the horrific Battle of Stalingrad. Of those, 44,315 died in captivity. The strongest part of the film is De Sica following one soldier through that winter.
Anto (Antonio), has escaped duty in North Africa with all its scorpions, dust and heat by means of a whirlwind romance and marriage with the lovely Giovanna,[Sophia Loren] (12 days of marital leave, don’t you know, and he misses his company’s deployment date.) After feigning madness and then being caught, quite sanely, in flagrante delicto, with the admirable Giovanna during her not conjugal visit he is sent to Russia, from which he does not return. After Stalin’s death in 1953 his widow (so declared) goes to Russia to find her man, her love and her husband. She finds him, but the circumstances do not make it a happy reunion. She returns to Milan, tears up his memories and moves on with her life– until Anto arrives some years later, remembering finally, his life before the war.
Not one of De Sica’s best efforts, the scenes between the two leads are often awkward with a bit of a lurking romantic comedy about them; neither are fully cloaked in their roles. Marvelous war scenes, not of blood and heroism but of small dark figures flailing against the implacable snow, and including some documentary footage, take place beneath an enormous, transparent red flag; it becomes a different movie all together. Giovanna’s search for Anton reverts to the earlier scenes. It is more of a sketch than a continuation of the serious war scenes preceding it. She traipses through Russian fields, always in two-inch heels, showing a picture of her dashing Anto to shrugging peasant women. She is made to gray and age but she is still Sophia Loren, impossible to hide. She leaves her purse on the departing train platform but somehow makes her way out of Russia and back to Milan.
When Anton finally returns to find her [months, or years? later], they meet and in quiet, understated encounters understand their fate. Once again De Sica shows his true nature: war has its consequences. Not only of lost limbs, lost minds, lost loved ones, but unchangeable reroutings of the courses of lives. Those once loved are forgotten; those met by chance become new loves.
All of life is a random turning of the wheel of chance. It doesn’t take a war to turn love and belonging upside down. But war does the turning harder and faster. It is more ruthless. Lovers don’t just drift away they are snatched, they are thought to be dead, but may be alive. Yearning and fidelity keep the wound of loss open. The disappeared reappears then is lost again. Years of heartache and fidelity are repaid with long-ago rejection and forgetting.
De Sica knows his stuff, even when he doesn’t get the telling of it quite right, twenty years after his great post-war films: Shoeshine; The Bicycle Thief and even Miracle in Milan. Released in the same year as the much better The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, it’s worth watching nevertheless, if only to remind us that those who were our enemies suffered sorrow and loss we have almost no memory of today; that the sunflowers, of the title, are growing from the graves of the dead.