At the end of the Second World War, the distraught but defiant Giovanna (Sophia Loren) refuses to accept that her Italian soldier husband Antonio (Marcello Mastroianni) has died. Even after another soldier returns from the Russian front to tell how he was forced to leave Antonio alone and exhausted in the snow, Giovanna continues to believe he is still alive. She promises her mother-in-law (Anna Carena) she will bring Antonio home some day. Years pass. Eventually Giovanna saves enough money to travel to the Soviet Union to search for her husband. What she finds changes her life forever.
Il Girasoli, released in English as Sunflower (although the plural: Sunflowers is a more accurate translation) marked the last outing for one of the great triumvirates in Italian cinema: stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and acclaimed director Vittorio De Sica. Loren would work one final time with her mentor De Sica on The Voyage (1974) and on several more films with her favourite co-star Mastroianni over ensuing decades. Nonetheless Sunflower signified the end of a particular golden age in Italian cinema. As such the film has a notably melancholy, autumnal feel. It permeates throughout the lush images conjured by celebrated cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and complemented by an achingly romantic score from Hollywood composer Henry Mancini.
Though removed from the uncompromising Neo Realism of De Sica's early work, Sunflower retains an earthiness, grit and emotional honesty that enriches its crowd-pleasing romanticism. A lot of this is down to commanding performances from the fiery Loren and empathetic Mastroianni. In a way the superstar duo here revisit the iconic Italian couple they played many times before including De Sica's Academy award-winning Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage, Italian Style (1964). After establishing Giovanna's plight the film flashes back to more lighthearted times that recall those earlier films, as when while canoodling on the beach Antonio accidentally swallows her earring. Throughout Sunflower's bawdy, humorous first half De Sica employs ironic jump-cuts to leap across different episodes in the couple's relationship. For example Antonio refusing to marry Giovanna is immediately followed by their wedding, their most romantic night together prefigures a violent argument wherein he threatens to murder her until ambushed by the police. This incident turns out to be a scam to help Antonio avoid the draft. It does not work. He is shipped off to the Russian front. Thereafter the mood darkens while the focus shifts almost exclusively to Giovanna's desperate search for her husband.
Book-ended by images of a field of sunflowers the film evokes actual wartime atrocities. The sunflowers mark the place where the Germans forced Italian and Russian soldiers and civilians to dig their own graves before they were executed. Sunflower was the first western production given permission to shoot in Soviet Russia and the grandiose scenery further enhances the film's epic sweep. De Sica opts for a vivid, impressionistic style, presenting a key battle sequence solely through the unfurling of an enormous red flag to represent the Soviet advance over a montage of stock footage. He weaves a plethora of poetic, haunting images such as when the wailing, war weary Italians trudge through the bleak Russian winter as one by one the weak drop dead in the snow. Also the train full of soldiers greeted by hundreds of desperate relatives clutching faded photos of lost loved ones. At heart however Sunflower tells a very simple, albeit affecting story with Sophia Loren as an almost mythic stand-in for the countless real-life war widows in search of answers. Much like Doctor Zhivago (1965) – with which this shares a co-producer in Loren's husband Carlo Ponti, here working in conjunction with the celebrated Joseph E. Levine – war is the obstacle that wrenches two lovers apart. As was the case with David Lean, De Sica proves uninterested in the politics underlining the war than in the emotional impact of history on ordinary lives. In the highly politicized atmosphere of 1970 more than a few Italian critics chastised him for ignoring politics, but Sunflower struck a chord with audiences with fresh memories of lives disrupted by war.