THE BOOTLEG FILES: “SUNFLOWER

In growing up, one of the films which made a distinct impression on me was the 1970 Italian drama “Sunflower,” directed by Vittorio de Sica and starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The first time I saw the film was around 1978 in a broadcast on a local New York television station that presented movies in prime time under the extravagant heading “Million Dollar Movie.” Back in 1978, a million dollars meant a lot more than it does today–especially in conjunction with films. In any event, this was not the ideal manner in which to see “Sunflower”–it was an English-dubbed version, in a pan-and-scan format, and interrupted by commercials every 15 minutes–yet despite these flaws I was mesmerized by the film’s emotional impact and the extraordinary performances by its stars. At the time, my family did not have a VCR so I waited patiently for “Sunflower” to return to television for another broadcast.

I’m still waiting. That’s because “Sunflower” seems to have vanished thoroughly, at least in the American market. A DVD is available in Italy, but that release does not have English subtitles. A couple of years ago, I located a bootleg version taken from the film’s very brief American video release in the late 1970s on the Magnetic label (the same folks who put out Let it Be,” another of our Bootleg Files listings). This was the English-dubbed/pan-and-scan version I saw on New York television way back when, which brought back a tsunami of nostalgia but still kept me from appreciating the film to its fullest. Yet even in this version, “Sunflower” is still an amazing film to behold.

“Sunflower” was a noteworthy production in its time because it was among the very few Western films shot on location in the Soviet Union. Sophia Loren would later comment how surprised she was that Russians and Ukrainians recognized her, given that the Soviet authorities never bothered to include show biz happenings in their propaganda newspapers, and Loren added that the locals never asked anything from her–instead, they gave her flowers, art and other gifts of appreciation.

The story of “Sunflower” is, admittedly, heavy on sentiment. Loren and Mastroianni are a young couple in the 1940s who marry shortly before he is sent off to fight in the Italian Army alongside the Germans on the Eastern Front. Mastroianni never comes home and it is presumed that he died along with most of the Italians who found themselves unprepared to engage in combat during the brutal Russian winter. Loren, who was never convinced of his death, tries for years to gain a visa to visit the Soviet Union to investigate for herself and, in a victory of Neapolitan persistence, is able to go behind the Iron Curtain. She traces the journey of her husband’s battalion in their doomed invasion and visits the memorial where the Italian dead are buried (a vast field of sunflowers, hence the film’s title). She eventually discovers that he is alive–and married to a Russian woman and the father of a daughter. Their reunion is brief and painful and she returns to Italy. Mastroianni, ashamed of his conduct, is able to gain an exit visa to return to Italy to find Loren, which he does–but by that time, she has moved on with her life and is in love with another man. Mastroianni leaves for Russia, never to return.

In lesser hands, “Sunflower” would have been a load of sop. Yet under de Sica’s direction, the film is a powerful and ultimately heartbreaking story. The battle sequences, with the Italian soldiers dropping into frozen death one by one, are a stunning achievement and offer a harrowing portrait of the brutality of war. But even more astonishing is de Sica’s direction of Sophia Loren. Their previous collaborations created magic, including Loren’s Oscar-winning triumph “Two Women,” but in “Sunflower” it is a final tour-de-force as Loren creates a force of power unlike anything seen before in her work. Visually, her glamour is played down to give the impression of an ordinary woman (no mean feat–c’mon, Sophia Loren being ordinary?). Yet her body language and especially her eyes telegraph a range of emotions that would destroy mere mortals. The scenes filmed in the Soviet Union are especially remarkable, from her rueful visit to the sunflower field where the Italian soldiers have been buried to the kinetic excitement of realizing and pursuing a man on the Moscow subway she assumes to be an Italian to the climactic anguish of seeing the child fathered by her presumed-dead husband.

Equally impressive is Mastroianni. Although the voice in the English-dubbed version is not his (Loren dubbed her own performance), Mastroianni’s physical transformation from a raucous young recruit to a lost soul dying in the Russian winter to an anonymous worker who secret life crashes down without notice is subtle to the point that one can easily forget he is acting. By the film’s conclusion, when he leaves to return to Russia, his character has been worn down into a tragic wreck of a once vital youth. It is a beautiful and memorable performance.

A peer to the direction and lead performances is Henry Mancini’s score, which received an Academy Award nomination and is considered to be among the finest work in the composer’s remarkable career. Mancini mirrors the film’s mood shifts, from young love to inner anguish to monumental battlefield losses to the search for answers and the pain this search uncovers. As with the film, the soundtrack album has been out of circulation for too many years.

So where did “Sunflower” go? In researching this title, I cannot find any logical reason why “Sunflower” is no longer available in the American market. Other Italian classics of that era are still in circulation, and one would think the name power attached to this title would warrant a DVD release (especially the Italian language version with English subtitles). Yet “Sunflower” somehow got lost along the way. It is not unlikely that it should be lost forever. But the fact it has been gone for such an absurdly long time is truly distressing.

Bootleg videos of the English-dubbed/pan-and-scan version turn up occasionally on eBay, and one eBay seller seems to have cornered the market on this title (anyone wishing to reach this seller should e-mail me care of Film Threat and I will provide the contact data for getting a copy of this film). Until “Sunflower” is allowed to blossom properly on DVD, this is the only way to appreciate this missing masterwork.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on December 12, 2003 in Features by
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