Directed by Vittorio De Sica; Written by Tonino Guerra, Cesare Zavattini and Giorgi Mdivani
Love can lash you with disappointment or hollow out your stomach. It can leave you in bereft agony when you lose the love of someone else, or worse yet, it can make you doubt the best of you when yours is taken for granted. Hovering between the two is the love of Sunflower, Vittorio De Sica’s wartime romance featuring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, an iconic pairing producing an iconic couple, as two lovers separated by a world’s call to arms.
Set in 1940’s Italy, Giovanna (Loren) and Antonio (Mastroianni) fall madly in love, and gorge themselves on that love without restraint, like the 24-egg frittata they consume on their wedding night. They lose track of the days they spend in bed – people are dying elsewhere, life is clearly short, so they make the most of it. It’s sun-kissed bliss, and Sunflower opens with a comedic overture, because when you’re this happy, it’s hard not to see past the clouds on the horizon, to laugh while people suffer in faraway places.
They’re married, mostly because it’ll stave off Antonio’s draft call-up that will send him to the eastern front. As it the date nears, every happy moment turns wistful, embraces become a little more desperate, and like its namesake, the bright petals of Sunflower’s outset descend into a dark center, with Antonio setting off for Russia with Giovanna waiting for his return.
Months become years, and even as the war ends, Antonio is nowhere to be found, neither confirmed dead or alive. Her hair grayed and face carved by worry, Giovanni remains resolute. Suspended in grief, she sets out to find him, but she soon learns there’s more than one way for war to kill a man.
Sunflower is an epic love story condensed to just over 100 minutes, and perhaps an epic-length runtime would have served it better. While the heady onrush of new love can be sped up, as infatuation is deaf to time’s ticking, the feelings of fret, doubt, and longing cannot. Despite Loren’s remarkable performance and transformation into a withered woman, a change in hairdo and streaks of white hair don’t fully convey the steady erosion of her vision for her future.
The leap from levity to tragedy is also an ungraceful one: a scene where Antonio in slap-stick fashion almost chokes on one of Giovanna’s earrings doesn’t come long before he’s hauled off by military police, his mind twisted with fear. The dark depths that Sunflower plunder in its second half not only make faint echoes of its early laughs, it makes you wonder if they even belong in the same film.
While Sunflower ultimately isn’t as complete and wrenching in its story of unfulfilled connections as classics Brief Encounter (1945) and In the Mood for Love (2000), or even Cold War (2018), the performances of Mastroianni and Loren still endure.
“You can exist without love,” Giovanna says late in the movie. To see the consequences written in her face and Antonio, where thoughts of could have been, would have been, should have been turned corrosive, you wonder who would want such a life.