Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni star in a serious drama about two outsiders in Mussolini’s Rome of 1938, an ordinary housewife and a political undesirable. They have a lot in common, as it turns out. Writer-director Ettore Scola condemnation of an oppressive authoritarian state, addresses the most basic human rights violations.
A Special Day
The Criterion Collection 778
1977 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 107 min. / Una giornata particolare / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 13, 2015 / 39.95
Starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, John Vernon, Françoise Berd.
Cinematography Pasqualino De Santis
Film Editor Raimondo Crociani
Original Music Armando Trovajoli
Written by Ettore Scola, Ruggero Maccari, Maurizio Costanzo
Produced by Carlo Ponti
Directed by Ettore Scola
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Veteran Italian screenwriter and director Ettore Scola’s best-known movie in the U.S. is 1974’s We All Loved Each Other So Much, but my instant favorite is this 1977 drama. Movies about life under Fascism usually gravitate toward extreme, life-and-death stories of high drama. This brilliant movie never overstates its case, and gives us an absorbing little story in which context is everything. Criterion’s extras introduce us to Scola, a writer of dozens of comedies who communicates a profound respect for people. The movie has no violence, no direct threats, no armies on the march or despicable treachery — yet we feel the sinister power of totalitarian control.
In a tall Roman apartment block, housewife Antonietta (Sophia Loren) is the only one of her family not leaving to participate in a giant parade and celebration in honor of Adolf Hitler’s state visit. Her children dress in their fascist association uniforms, as does her husband Emanuele (John Vernon of Point Blank and Animal House), a mid-range party functionary. The building’s residents all rush out for the big day, and in a few minutes Antonietta is almost alone in the empty building, save for the sound of a radio left on, broadcasting from the celebration. By coincidence Antonietta meets her handsome neighbor Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), who says he isn’t attending. He’s a state radio announcer, not working at the moment. They’re lonely. They talk, and she’s intrigued by his politeness. Inordinately in need of company, Gabriele gets Antonietta to dance. He follows her back to her apartment. This draws the attention of the suspicious concierge (Françoise Berd), who tells Antonietta that Gabriel is a political undesirable. The man has already seen Antonietta’s adoring scrapbook to Il Duce, and she asks if he’s been patronizing her. Then she wants to know what’s wrong with him, in the first place. What she finds out is a surprise, but it doesn’t make Gabriele less attractive.
One goes into A Special Day expecting yet another nostalgic comedy for Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The five-minute newsreel opening tells us that it’s a particular day in 1938, and then the film’s odd color — desaturated, almost sepia — informs us that we’re definitely not watching a comedy. In one extended take, Loren’s Antonietta cruises slowly through the family apartment, waking her brood of kids and her domineering husband. Everyone’s excited about the parade day except Antoinetta. The Fascist miracle isn’t so wonderful for this housewife. She worships Mussolini as well, but cannot muster the expected level of enthusiasm. She cooks cleans and washes for the family, and nobody seems to notice. Emaneule can’t wait to see Hitler, but he treats Antonietta literally like a dishrag, wiping his hands on her dress. There are no thank yous and no kisses, just complaints. Even their talking Mynah bird says her name wrong. Emanuele barely acknowledges her. If they have one more child, they get more money from the state, for producing seven babies for Il Duce.
Scola and Maccari sketch all of Fascist Rome with the sight of the apartment block emptying out for the rally, with every resident dressed in an official costume. The state gives everybody a role to play, so girls have attractive shawls and berets, and the men turn out in various odd costumes. The statement about conformity is underscored by the homely concierge who stays behind — anybody not excited about the grand destiny of the Italian people with their new ‘sister’ nation Germany, is a naysayer, an anti-Fascist, a troublemaker to be shunned.
Although we hear the announcements all day, the parade leaves Antonietta and Gabriele alone together, where their essential loneliness and discontent can come out. Now in her early ’40s, Loren drops her glamourous image. Her Antonietta is naturally pretty but also an un-kept mess. She wears the same ugly housedress all day, and her hair falls in an uncombed tumble. She’s of course still beautiful. To her surprise, it’s her attraction to Gabriele that gets the relationship going.
Gabriele is desperate for companionship on what for him is also a special day, but not a happy one. He’s a playful guy, not afraid to be silly as the mood strikes him. He and Antonietta would get along well, if it were not for the intervention of the concierge, who poisons the water by taking it upon herself to enforce the social order: Gabriele is trouble, he’s bad, he’s a subversive. He’s not on leave from the station, he was thrown out. Gabriele doesn’t offer a defense. He doesn’t consider himself particularly anti-Fascist; he says that the Fascists are anti-him, for a reason Antonietta ought to be able to guess. He has friends that have already been arrested, and taken to detention camps.
Much of the beautifully realized A Special Day unspools in real time, like a play. With Antonietta’s apartment window facing other windows across a large square, the situation frequently resembles Rear Window. Once she’s become interested, Antonietta is forever looking across the hundred feet or so at Gabriele’s window. She comes to his apartment to retrieve an escaped bird, and he comes to hers to loan a book. Then she goes back to his place … just because. They aren’t at all a match, yet are drawn together by their respective situations. It all leads to a very different kind of sex scene.
The movie shows the difference between delivering a message and explicating a view of political reality. The social pressure of Fascist Rome must have been inescapable for most citizens. The totalitarian influence/control reaches into homes and particularly into the bedroom. Mussolini’s masculine, paternal power is restated several times, and Antonietta herself has written down his slogans that declare men the masters of their wives and homes. It’s sexual tyranny: total subservience is required of Italy’s women. They’re encouraged to feel physically in love with Mussolini as well.
The Fascists are obsessed with military power and throwing their weight around. The effects aren’t just in Africa and Spain, but in every household. The pressure to conform to a narrow range of socially sanctioned behaviors is enforced by people you can’t ignore because they will make your life miserable. And that’s just the price of petty non-conformism. No tolerance whatsoever is afforded opposition or resistance.
This may be Sophia Loren’s most accomplished dramatic performance. Marcello Mastroianni’s portrait of a persecuted gentleman is innovative, remarkable. There are a million ways to mis-play this character criminalized by society, but Mastroianni doesn’t miss a step. Ettore Scola’s specific setting and specific characters seem indelible… it’s a movie one is not likely to forget.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of A Special Day was approved by its director, removing the doubt factor about its odd appearance. The image is bright and the picture sharp. John Huston did color experiments in several of his pictures but this visual treatment is even more extreme. A German flag we expect to be bright red is a rusty bronze color in the pre-dawn light; it picks up only a hint of red later in the day. Some cameramen of the late ‘seventies used coral filters to purposely give movies a golden monochrome, but this show makes a deliberate effort to deglamorize both its actress and its setting. Do we feel like we’re in the past? Maybe. I would imagine that the gambit did not help the film’s commercial prospects. That apartment block and Antonietta’s multi-room flat are ‘very special’ dramatic places, and perhaps normal colors would carry the wrong emotional message, making us expect more comedy touches.
Disc producer Elizabeth Pauker presents an illuminating set of extras. Ettore Scola is in his mid- eighties but is vital and sharp as a tack; he has pleasant memories of the film as he talks about his long career. He tells us that he’d only seen gay characters used for comedy effect, and never accepted on an equal basis with other people. Pauker pulls a remarkable interview from Sophia Loren, who ignores her legendary status to talk candidly about a career that until this film mostly tasked her to be attractive and sexy. When she remembers her emotional troubles with the decidedly unglamorous Antonietta, we believe every word. This and Loren’s early dramatic role in Two Women are her favorite performances.
Two half-hour episodes of The Dick Cavett Show are here, taped when Loren and Mastroianni were promoting A Special Day. His English is not very good. Cavett is more hyper-urbane than usual, with that tone that assures us he’s on personal terms with the Gods, and we’re not. Otherwise he pulls a fine, fun hour from the pair of very close friends.
Sophia Loren also appears in Human Voice, a short film by her son Edoardo Ponti made in 2014. It’s specially promoted on the cover sticker, a first for Criterion, I think. The source is a play by Jean Cocteau, previously performed for film by Anna Magnani (directed by Roberto Rossellini), Ingrid Bergman (Ted Kotcheff) and Julia Migenes (Peter Medak). It’s also more or less the basis for Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The insert essay is on a folding flyer that’s fun to read if you love spreading road maps in your lap. The cover illustration is pretty matches the color scheme of the film. I had not been aware of this picture, and I’m very glad that I saw it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Special Day Blu-ray
Supplements: Human Voice starring Sophia Loren, new interviews with Loren and Ettore Scola, two episodes of the Dick Cavett Show with Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, original trailer, insert flyer with essay by Deborah Young
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson