The 2 or 3 good films from 2016, and “Sunflower”, a lost De Sica classic.



Donald Clarke is one of the few consistently reliable film critics on these shores, so when in a recent Irish Times column he described Arrived as one of the best films of the year, I trotted along to the cinema confidently expecting to be wowed. A couple of hours later I came out scratching my head. It’s all right, and it certainly is one of the best Hollywood films of the year, but that surely is setting the bar at an embarrassingly low level.

So naturally enough, I set about compiling my own list of the year’s best films. And do you know what, he was right, though not I suspect in the manner that he meant. 2016 was a dreadfully disappointing year film wise.

Heroically, the Guardian managed to find no fewer than 48 films to recommend as their films of the year here. Including: the comic book pair of damp squibs Captain America and Deadpool, the Coen’s pedestrianly conventional Hail Caesar, the latest unnecessary film-by-numbers from Tarantino The Hateful Eight, Tom Ford’s there’s-no-there-there Nocturnal Animals, reviewed earlier here, and, yawn, Ghostbusters.

Love and Friendship.

Love and Friendship.

This being the Guardian they even managed to recommend a couple of Irish films. The, whisper it, hopelessly muddled Room – whose story is it, his or hers, and what do they want? If it’s to escape, then what’s the second hour about, and if that’s not what they want, then what’s the first hour about? And Sing Street, which would be fine in a TV listings for a Sunday evening as a marginally more lively alternative to The Antiques Roadshow, but should never have been allowed within a three hundred mile radius of an actual cinema.

And, inevitably, they warmly recommended I, Daniel Blake, which is, frankly, little more than a Ken Loach film. I know I know, you’re right, that is harsh, but honestly, that’s really all it is.

Son of Saul.

Son of Saul.

There were a handful of memorable films. Whit Stillman’s charming adaptation of a minor Jane Austen, Love and Friendship, László Nemes’ harrowing Son of Saul, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (reviewed earlier here), and Matteo Garrone’s majestic Tale of Tales (reviewed earlier here).

Tale of Tales.

Tale of Tales.

But if in ten years’ time you were watching a screen somewhere and you recognized a scene from one of the above, which one of them would make you stop what you were doing to think, I hope I have time to sit down and watch the rest of this? Tale of Tales, just about, so long as the screen was sufficiently grandiose to do it justice. But there’s nothing there that would make your heart skip a beat at the thought of having the chance to see it again. What do I mean by that? Sunflower.

Sunflower was part of a last great hurrah that the truly great Italian film maker Vittorio De Sica enjoyed, but had the misfortune to be the first of two films that he released in the same year, in 1970. And it ended up being very unfairly eclipsed by his second film, the exquisite and heart-breaking The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which went on to win the Academy Award for best foreign film that same year, which I reviewed earlier here.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Sunflower is every bit as emotionally devastating though in a somewhat different way. Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni fall in love on the eve of the second World War and, despite their best efforts, he is eventually forced to do his bit and is dispatched to the Eastern front. When he fails to return, Loren sets off for Russia determined to find out what has become of him.

Very much a companion piece to Demy’s sublime The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, like that film Sunflower takes an apparently mundane, everyday story, and gives it incredible emotional resonance and depth by transforming it into an impossibly bold and dazzlingly brilliant melodrama. Almost as ravishingly colourful as Cherbourg, though not actually a musical, it effectively feels like one, such is the power of Henry Mancini’s devastating score.

Mastroianni and Loren.

Mastroianni and Loren.

I saw it a couple of years ago on Sky Arts, but I notice that, in their efforts to make it a 24 hour channel, in contrast to, say, the likes of BBC4, they rotate a number of their films and programmes throughout the night and into the morning. So you can still find it every now and then hidden in their schedule. If you get the chance, watch it. And in ten years’ time, when you catch a glimpse of it on a screen somewhere, you’ll have something to look forward to.

See the unofficial trailer to Sunflower here:

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De Sica’s Lost Masterpiece “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”.

Vittorio De Sica began his life as a dashing Italian matinée idol, waltzing his way breezily through what came to be referred to sniffily as their white telephone films of the 1930s.

But when he emerged as a director in the 1940s, he made some of the most influential films in Italian Neo-realism.

Films like The Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D are today seen as archetypal examples of the genre. They followed non-professional actors, in real locations as they tried in vain to come to terms with life in a post-war and poverty-ravaged Italy.

All serious film makers in Italy began in the neo-realist mode in the 40s, 50s and 60s. And they all of them almost immediately abandoned it in favour of their own personal version of its exact opposite.

So Fellini  moved to the multi-dimensional, overtly theatrical and gloriously colourful archetypes of and Amarcord. Visconti to the meticulously mannered melodrama of Senso and Death in Venice. And Antonioni to the measured formalism and the carefully crafted sculptural structures of the Monica Vitti trilogy.

Only Rosellini stayed the course, hence the somewhat ossified feeling to most of his later films.

De Sica similarly abandoned neo-realism and went back to the easy-going, feel-good comedies that Italians seem to need as a reward for all the serious art they’re subjected to. And by the 60s he was best known for films like Marriage Italian Style, and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sofia Loren.

Though both, it should be noted, are significantly more sophisticated than they appear. And De Sica’s own colourful marital arrangements, together with the need to fund his gambling habit, were at least partially to blame for his return to the more commercial arena.

But as he neared the twilight of his career, he once again felt the urge to produce something of a bit more substance. And for ten years after it was published in 1962, he carried the Giorgio Bassani novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis around with him, until finally he was able to raise the money to get it made.

The film stars Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger (who were contractually obliged to appear in all Italian art-house films at the time) as the two children of an impossibly wealthy and blissfully cultured Jewish family in an Italy as it moved inexorably towards the II World War, with all that that would mean for its population of Jews.

What it does so well is to marry what script guru Eoghan Harris calls the private and public axes. Along the private axis, you have the Giorgio character, as he tries forlornly to pursue the obscure object of desire that is la Sanda. She is unattainable on every conceivable level. And yet clearly, there is a profound connection between them. What is it that holds her back?

Whilst along the public axis, you have Giorgio’s father, a hard working Jewish business man and a loyal Italian. And, like so many others, all he wants is to fit in. So he joins the Fascist Party. And he and the community of Jews that he is a part of look on in horror as the reality of the era into which they were born slowly begins to dawn on them.

Beautiful is not a word I use very often. I’m with MacLiammoir on that. Like love and genius, it’s been hopelessly debased from being over-used. But this is that rare exception, a genuinely and heart-breakingly beautiful film.

It’s De Sica’s love letter to doomed youth. And it’s hopelessly and exquisitely beautiful. It’s out now, finally, on DVD. And you should also have a look at the interview with his son, Manuel, who composed its score. He correctly laments the film’s one, minor flaw; the un-necessary montage that the films briefly ends with.

But those few stray frames aside, The Garden of The Finzi-Continis is a quiet masterpiece (another one of those over-used words), and it demands to be seen.

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