• A Special Day: Small Victories

    By Deborah Young

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    Though it was shot three decades after the war, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (1977) remains one of the most telling films ever made about Italian Fascism, viewing the period’s oppressive atmosphere and enforced flag-waving through the prism of a delicate human relationship between a man and a woman. The action takes place on May 6, 1938, when Adolf Hitler and his chiefs of staff, including Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop, came to Rome to pay a state visit to Benito Mussolini, Il Duce. Though not quite a love story, it perversely plays on the auras of two long-­standing icons of screen romance, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, turning the audience’s desire for cinematic passion upside down. Who could have imagined the glamorous Loren playing a mousy hausfrau in an old robe and slippers, or Mastroianni, the prototypical Latin lover, as a gay intellectual? Only in an Italian comedy, perhaps, is the combination thinkable—but A Special Day is no comedy.

    This is all the more surprising coming from Scola, who at the time was a well-established political satirist and comedy director. Born in 1931, he was just fifteen when he began drawing cartoons for popular satirical magazines like Marc’Aurelio, where Federico Fellini won early fame. (Scola’s affectionate 2013 tribute How Strange to Be Named Federico provides a charming description of the period.) By the 1950s, he was churning out film and TV scripts for the commedia all’italiana, often with Ruggero Maccari. It was in the sixties that his screenplays began to evolve into incisive social critiques. Il sorpasso (1962), starring Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant and directed by Dino Risi, cast an ironic eye on the excesses of Italy’s economic boom, while he explored the fragile social position of women in I Knew Her Well (1965), directed by Antonio Pietrangeli and starring Stefania Sandrelli.

    Thus, when Scola began directing films on his own in 1964, social comedies were a natural fit. We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974), a direct predecessor to A Special Day, looked back at thirty years of Italian history through the lives of three anti-Fascist friends, played by Gassman, Nino Manfredi, and Stefano Satta Flores, with Sandrelli as their love interest. It was followed by Down and Dirty (1976), a grotesque spoof starring Manfredi and set in Rome’s outlying slums.

    Faced with recounting the Hitler-Mussolini summit, Scola might have been expected to opt for an approach like that of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 political satire The Great Dictator, where Jack Oakie played a ham-fisted “Benzino Napaloni.” Instead, A Special Day sets aside humor to look back at a grim red-letter day and its personal implications. In the quietly lyrical screenplay, written by Scola and Maccari, the historic occasion is the backdrop to a brief encounter between two lonely people. One knows he is “different”; the other recognizes her specialness only at the end of the film, when both reclaim their individuality with dignity. Affirming the need for human warmth and affection as an antidote to an inhuman society, A Special Day has lost none of its relevance or fascination over the years and ranks among Scola’s most accomplished works.

    The Fascist period in Italy, which began with Mussolini’s triumphant march on Rome with his Blackshirts in 1922, formally ended with his overthrow in 1943, and more definitively with his inglorious execution two years later at the hands of the partisans. Italian cinema has struggled to make sense of the country’s Fascist past ever since. It took a big step in that direction in the immediate postwar period, when the highly influential neorealist movement directly conveyed the sensations of a society at war and in transition in gritty films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Yet by the late 1970s, a good part of the population still viewed their country’s Fascist past with nostalgia, as a time when Italy counted for something on the international political scene and Mussolini made the trains run on time.

    Scola was then a leading intellectual in the powerful Italian Communist Party, and his political ideas surely contributed to his decision to make A Special Day. Though Fascism had theoretically been defeated decades earlier, in reality this was far from the case. The Italian Social Movement, heir to Mussolini’s party, had just split into four groups and was constantly in the news due to violent, often deadly clashes between its Youth Front and young Communists. At a time when memories of the war’s horrors were fading, Scola had the credibility to remind Italians what Fascism was really like. The resounding critical and box-office success of We All Loved Each Other So Much had consolidated his reputation as one of Italy’s leading directors, one who could tackle social and political subjects in all their psychological and moral implications without simplifying matters. And A Special Day was destined to bring him more acclaim. It was presented in competition at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival and, after winning the Golden Globe Award for best foreign film, was nominated in the same category at the 1978 Academy Awards, where Mastroianni also received a nomination for best actor.

    Rather than try to re-create Hitler’s visit, Scola made the bold decision to show official newsreel footage and to use commentary from a contemporary radio announcer. The film opens with six uninterrupted minutes of archival images showing the pomp and circumstance with which Hitler was greeted by “imperial Rome”—though as some historians have noted, there was a lot more show than substance on the Italian side. The material comes from a public service film entitled The Führer’s Trip to Italy, which details the key events of the day. It was shot and edited by official propagandists, who deftly emphasize the importance of the personalities and confer the dwarfish king of Italy, the oversize Duce, and the preening führer with mythic status as they parade before soldiers in formation, saluting in unison with Leni Riefenstahl enthusiasm. As fascinating as it is repulsive, this black-and-white footage is presented without any introduction and is the last time Mussolini and Hitler appear on-screen.

    And yet they permeate every waking moment of the characters’ lives. The story opens in the spacious courtyard of a housing project, the largest of its kind built in Rome in the 1930s. Cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis films it in highly desaturated colors, leaving the impression of a grayish-green fish tank smothering Luciano Ricceri’s detailed period sets. There is one note of color, however. The building caretaker, played with spiteful ill will by Françoise Berd, has hung out the Italian flag next to a huge red Nazi swastika. As the camera continues to slowly cross the courtyard in a single leisurely zoom, it closes in on the upper-floor apartment of Antonietta (Loren) and her husband, Emanuele (John Vernon), a pompous ministry employee. We notice that he treats his wife like the proverbial doormat, even drying his hands on her blowsy housedress as they bicker without affection. As she wakes their six kids and everyone begins to dress up in their uniforms and best clothes, it becomes obvious that she will not be accompanying them to the rally in honor of the great Italian-German alliance.

    As Antonietta gazes out the kitchen window, Scola uses a repeated overhead shot to show the neighbors pouring out of their apartments in excitement and hurrying to the rally in droves. For a moment, it seems as if she is going to be the only one left at home. But even when the whole housing complex has gone, silence doesn’t fall. Because someone has left a radio on full blast, and it is spieling out live coverage from the rally. This constant Big Brother noise track is the counter­point to every scene in the film, pervading the most intimate moments of daily life and creating an underlying tension that never lets up.

    In the pre-television era, the radio was a major propaganda tool for the regime, and its omnipresence in the film (coupled with the opening newsreel footage) emphasizes how important the media were to Fascist consensus building. It recalls Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The Conformist, also set in the thirties, in which the hero’s best friend is a blind radio announcer and a convinced Fascist. Though Scola’s approach is quite different, both directors underline the theatrical nature of the Italian regime, which created a world of make-believe that attracted masses of people.

    One of these is Antonietta, who is initially filled with naive admiration for and faith in Il Duce. She tells an incredible tale about fainting in the park one day when Mussolini rode by her (this is supposedly based on a true story about Loren’s mother). She also keeps a book of clippings in Mussolini’s honor, not to mention a large portrait of Il Duce that she has ingeniously created out of buttons. One imagines that most of her neighbors are similarly reverent, or at least compliant, including the grim super, who snaps the Fascist salute as a matter of course. The regime tampers with even the most intimate areas of life, as seen in her husband’s calculating plan to have a seventh child so that they will qualify for a cash prize awarded to large families.

    But on this special day, something happens that will change Antonietta’s outlook forever: a chance encounter with a fellow tenant, across the courtyard. If she looked out her window, she could almost see him bent over a pile of letters, pensively fingering a pistol. This is Gabriele (Mastroianni), who has been fired from his job as an announcer on state radio and is about to be sent into exile because of Mussolini’s antigay laws. Appropriately enough, it is a pet mynah bird, escaped from its cage in her kitchen, that brings the trapped Antonietta to his door. He’s relieved to put aside his dark thoughts and, desperate for company, passes the day with her.

    In one of his most memorable if atypical performances, the fifty-two-year-old actor reveals Gabriele’s homosexuality in a few telling gestures and gentle words. His irony confounds the practical Antonietta. He’s a joker who grabs on to her for dear life. He makes fun of everything, but is tenderly touching in a brief phone call to someone far away whom he obviously cares for. The eagerness with which he shows Antonietta a few rumba steps, or races around the apartment on her son’s scooter, and the impulsive practical joke he plays, wrapping her in laundry on the terrace, all point to a man who, despite his dark side and his life of repression, delights in life’s simple pleasures. The opposite of the careworn wife and mother in front of him. Yet somehow, they have recognized each other as kindred spirits, needily seeking compassion and acceptance for what they are. “You’re not like the others, you’re here with me,” Gabriele tells her poignantly.

    Apart from the busybody superintendent, they seem to be alone in the building, suspended in a timeless moment and a surreally empty space. The super derides him as an anti-Fascist and warns Antonietta not to associate with him. “I’m not a husband, a father, or a soldier,” Gabriele assures her, rejecting a macho credo. Antonietta is confused; she finds him so well mannered and thinks he’s flirting with her, missing the point completely. Just as the triumphal march on the radio celebrating “the magnificence of Fascist Italy” and “Germany, Italy’s new sister,” reaches its climax, he angrily blurts out the truth.

    Though she was still a very glamorous forty-two-year-old star when the film was made (and happily married to Carlo Ponti, who produced the Italian-Canadian project), Loren was transformed by makeup expert Franco Freda into a wan housewife to play the role of the lowborn Neapolitan Antonietta. It’s a striking makeover, particularly when the viewer conjures up the steamy Loren-Mastroianni pairings of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964). Submissive and lacking in self-esteem, Antonietta is not a diva’s role; in Loren’s career, it is perhaps closest to her Oscar-winning, glammed-down performance in Two Women (1960) or her recent turn as an abandoned lover in Edoardo Ponti’s 2014 short Human Voice (included on this release). Yet there is a beckoning intimacy in the star’s wide green eyes that conveys an unmistakable, familiar challenge to Mastroianni.

    The film reaches its dramatic high point in a whisper-smooth, heart-wrenching seduction scene, played without music and with the camera barely leaving Antonietta’s face. Antonietta and Gabriele will probably carry their secret to the grave, but the events of this special day have changed both of them profoundly. Even if daily life must go on. Closing the film on this quiet but convincing note of inner resistance, Scola suggests a path that cuts through mass-think ideologies, one that anyone can follow with a little human solidarity and courage.

    Based in Rome, Deborah Young is a film critic and journalist who has written extensively about Italian cinema. She is the international film editor of the Hollywood Reporter.

3 comments

  • By Jack Messenger
    October 31, 2015
    06:25 AM

    The extract looks superb and this essay has whetted my appetite. I had never heard of this film, but I am extremely eager to see it. Thank you for making it available.
    Reply
  • By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster
    May 21, 2016
    09:48 AM

    A SPECIAL DAY has a great deal of relevance today. Fascism is not a thing of the past. False consensus is a very dangerous thing indeed, and a frightening thing to watch right before our very own eyes. Great essay.
    Reply
  • By Gary Robinson
    October 13, 2017
    07:58 AM

    An awesome film. There needs to be much more Sophia Loren on criterion. I think this is the only one. Come on guys.
    Reply