Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Italy/France/USSR. 1970.

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Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni are one of the most compelling screen duos of any country of all time; they have appeared together in thirteen films, some of the most notable being light hearted  ‘Marriage Italian Style’1964 and ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ 1963, both directed by De Sica, as well as the more serious tragic-drama ,Sunflower, which was  the first Western film to be filmed  in Russia.

Loren and Mastroianni play Giovanna and Antonio, young lovers who decide to get married to afford Antonio a twelve day leave from World War 2. Unfortunately, contrary to Giovanna’s hopes, the war does not end in those 12 days, and Antonio goes off to fight in Russia.

At the end of the war, when Giovanna goes to the station to see if Antonio has returned safely, he is not there, but she meets a soldier who left him in the snow in the cold Russian winter, after Antonio became unable to walk. The last time the soldier saw him, he was alive- barely.

For Giovanna, not having proof of his death is enough incentive to head to Russia herself to find him, and she’s in for a nasty surprise.

The two lead actors are extraordinary; the amount of pain in their faces anytime they part company is both heart-wrenching and haunting.  Their chemistry, the absolute certainty in their minds and ours that they are so right for each other, that is what fuels the emotional trauma of the film. Everything is against them, they know it and they battle, and so when they do the right thing, it doesn’t feel right at all.

Sophia Loren, in particular is astounding. As she breaks down after hearing some horrible news, it’s physically difficult to watch her brave façade melt away as she weeps on a train back to her normal life, next to a confused but sympathetic Russian woman.

De Sica directs some beautiful set pieces, in particular the scene at the train station where all the wives and mothers are holding pictures of their husbands and sons, desperately trying to find out what happened to them, praying they will be on the train; if that doesn’t affect you, you have no heart.

The bravery of not going for the simple ending, for doing the right thing, it paid off and De Sica was rewarded with a lovely, profoundly moving film about the losses that come with war. It was the last of his collaborations with Loren and Mastroianni, and unquestionably the best, it’s a shame it’s not better known.

Chloe Walker

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