|The following review contains major spoilers. If you have not seen the film, consider yourself warned.|
The title of Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (Una giornata particolare) is fraught with all kinds of irony and conflicting meaning that ties together its heartfelt story of the chance meeting and bonding of two isolated people living in a massive apartment complex in Rome and the larger historical context against which that story unfolds. The special day of the title is May 6, 1938, a crucial day in the history of Fascist Italy, as it was the day that Adolf Hitler and his chiefs of staff paid an official state visit to Benito Mussolini, which we first see in six minutes of grainy newsreel footage compiled by Italy’s propagandists. Hitler’s visit is treated like a state holiday—a country-wide celebration of the Rome-Berlin Axis—with children getting out of school and everyone who can taking off work to see Hitler and Il Duce’s meeting. Nazi banners and flags are unfurled alongside the Italian flag, and going to the event is worn like a badge of honor.
Two people, however, do not attend the meeting, and instead stay in their respective apartments, but for very different reasons. One of them is Antonietta (Sophia Loren), a middle-aged housewife with an inattentive bureaucrat husband (John Vernon) and six children she is tasked with caring for. Her life is one of thankless domestic drudgery, making sure everyone is properly dressed and fed and seeing everyone out the door so she can then clean up their messes. While not financially strapped, her family is clearly stretching to make ends meet, which is evidenced by the way their apartment is sectioned off to make enough room for everyone and the runs in Antonietta’s stockings. The other person who stays behind is Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), a middle-aged bachelor who lives on the other side of the apartment building. While Antonietta’s domestic responsibilities explain why she has stayed home, Gabriele’s reasons are more vague.
They meet when Antonietta’s family’s pet mynah bird escapes its cage and flies out the window, landing on a ledge close to Gabriele’s apartment. She knocks on his door hoping that he will let her in so she can retrieve the bird, which he does. Once inside the apartment, there is an immediate, although initially repressed connection between the two of them, and the star casting of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, who had previously starred together in nine films (they would go on to make 17 together), would lead one to believe that A Special Day is heading toward a torrid, one-day love affair in which a lonely housewife and a lonely bachelor connect physically and emotionally in the void left by an entire country’s being entranced by the meeting of two dictators who were on the precipice of bringing the modern world to ruin.
Alas, that is not at all where the film is headed, although Scola and co-screenwriter Ruggero Maccari, with whom he had previously collaborated on numerous films, including Il sorpasso (1962), do everything imaginable to lead us to that conclusion. There are the awkward pauses, the stolen glances, the excuses made to be close and to see each other again. We catch Antonietta smoothing her skirt and her hair when she knows she’s going to see Gabriele and trying to hide the embarrassing hole in the toe of her stocking, and Gabriele is only too eager to show her the rumba steps he’s been practicing.
By this point in their careers, Loren and Mastroianni had already developed a powerful screen chemistry, and their pairing was consistently beloved in both Europe and the United States (when Photoplay magazine polled its readers in 1965 about its favorite new Hollywood stars, Loren and Mastroianni were numbers one and two). By the time A Special Day was released in the late 1970s, they were already iconic both individually and, more importantly, as a pair, which would again lead us to believe that the film is moving toward a rather standard depiction of breathless extramarital romantic intensity (or, in the mold of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, endlessly repressed desire).
Instead, midway through the film Gabriele reveals that he is a homosexual, a crime in fascist Italy that has led to his being fired from his job as a popular announcer on state-run radio and reduced to a hermetic writer of cards for a department store. His impassioned admission, one of the most powerful moments of Mastroianni’s storied acting career, follows a series of ups and downs in his brief relationship with Antonietta, who is disgusted to learn that he is not a good fascist as she sees herself and her family (there is a genuine naiveté to her politics, which contributes to her sense of quiet desperation and lack of identity). Musing on the idea of his being “anti-fascist,” Gabriele notes that a better assessment is that the fascists are “anti-him,” one of the first clues to his secret identity.
Thus, A Special Day, which was shot almost entirely in a heavily desaturated palette that make it look like a faded color photograph, takes the framework of a familiar subset of romantic drama and vigorously turns it on its head as a means of tackling an acute example of what it means to be a social outsider. Gabriele’s status as a homosexual doesn’t just make him socially unacceptable, but also physically and legally endangered by a state that exiled and interned so-called sexual deviants who threatened their rigid sense of moral hygiene. The danger is real, and Mastroianni plays his character with a masterful mix of external resolve and internal despair. Antonietta mistakes her immediate connection with him as fundamentally romantic and sexual, and the film is particularly striking in the way it repositions that connection on a deeper and more meaningful level than just in-the-moment physical passion.
At first Antonietta resists Gabriele’s homosexuality in the same way she resisted his anti-fascism, but in both cases she is still drawn back to him because she feels his fundamental humanity and aloneness in the world, which she recognizes in herself. The film is, at its core, the story of two lonely people who find each other and make a world of their own for a tragically brief time. A Special Day, which Mastroianni cited in an interview with Roger Ebert in 1985 as his second favorite film in which he starred, following Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), is quite beautiful in its simplicity and refusal to soften the realities of the world it is depicting. It doesn’t offer an pat answers or an uplifting coda, ending instead with Gabriele being led off by black-suited fascist officers toward an uncertain future while Antonietta watches from her window, impotent to do anything about it. His future is bleak, and we can only hope that she will be, in some way, transformed via her connection with someone who, in virtually every category, should be her enemy, but instead was revealed to be a true kindred spirit.
Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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