‘A Special Day’ in Fascist Italy

Despite the tumultuous times, the characters in A Special Day can’t escape the clichés of a standard melodramatic story.

Antonietta (Sophia Loren) and Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni) live in the same working-class apartment complex in Italy. When Antonietta’s pet bird flies out of her apartment window, she goes to Gabriele’s apartment to retrieve it. Chance and convenience bring them together for the first time. A Special Day (1977) chronicles their connection in the course of a single day.

As the title indicates, this is not an ordinary day. The film is set during the historic meeting between Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in 1938. Fascist sentiment was high in Italy, and the people were proud followers. Antonietta and Gabriele are the only ones in their apartment complex, with the exception of the nosey landlord, who do not attend the ceremony.

History tells us that historical events like Hitler and Mussolini’s meeting were monumental, but the film reminds us that not everyone participated or wanted to participate. The phrase “the whole world is watching” is never accurate. There are always people who aren’t watching, and their stories deserve to be told. A lesser filmmaker would have focused on the spectacle of Hitler and Mussolini’s encounter. Filmmaker Ettore Scola wisely puts that aside for the two Italians who stay home.

However, Antonietta’s absence isn’t a choice. She’s a staunch Mussolini supporter, and would like to attend the event, but has too much housework to do. The first few scenes of the film establish the family dynamic in her household. Antoinette, like most Italian housewives, is in charge of chores, as well as making sure her children and husband function on schedule. By the time her children and husband leave for the ceremony, she’s exhausted.

Gabriele’s reasons for staying behind are kept secret. It’s best to discover them, as Antonietta does, one disclosure at a time. However, it’s difficult to review the film without discussing the details. I would advise those who want to avoid spoilers to stop reading.

Gabriele is a radio broadcaster who lives alone in his apartment. Halfway through the film, he tells Antonietta that he is a homosexual, and his lifestyle is condemned by Italy’s fascist regime. Unlike Antonietta, who is busy with housework, he doesn’t attend the ceremony because he doesn’t support Mussolini and Hitler’s agenda.

A Special Day isn’t Loren and Mastroianni’s only collaboration, nor is it their best. Their performances are fine, but their characters make choices that are often difficult to believe. One pivotal scene toward the end of the film, in particular, feels forced. Antonietta and Gabriele make love, and their behavior contradicts the previous scene in which Gabriele reveals his sexual preference. Scola wants the scene to be intimate, but it comes across as insincere.

Sure, Antonietta’s motivation in this scene makes sense. She’s dissatisfied with her husband, sexually frustrated, and seeks a release. However, Gabriele’s reaction is ridiculous. He welcomes Antonietta’s advances with open arms. His far-fetched response nearly took me out of the movie. Apparently Gabriele is gay, but not gay enough to resist Loren.

Scola deserves credit for shining a light on the darker days of Italy’s past, and the many men and women who didn’t subscribe to the fascist propaganda. Gabriele’s homosexuality is a harsh reminder of those who were punished by ruthless dictators for going against the grain. However, the love scene undermines the film’s subversive themes. Scola wants his characters to counter the conformist culture of fascist Italy, but they can’t escape the clichés of a standard melodramatic story.

Pasqualino De Santis’ cinematography is the real reason to the see the film. The camera glides in and out of the apartment building, and the movements are smooth and fluid. Today, filmmakers can take advantage of inexpensive digital equipment to perfect long takes, but film was an expensive material in the ’70s, and each mistake was consequential. The stakes were higher then, and filmmakers had to be on top of their game to ensure that their intricate shots were successfully executed. De Santis won the Oscar for Romeo and Juliet (1969), but his work in A Special Day is even more impressive.

The two disc DVD edition comes with the usual Criterion supplements. There are newly recorded interviews with Scola and Loren, as well as older interviews with Loren and Mastroianni that were conducted on The Dick Cavett Show in 1977. In addition, there’s Human Voice, a 2014 short film starring Loren and directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. The short film is beautifully shot, and has some pretty pictures of Italy’s coastline. These supplements should appeal to those who want to learn more about the film’s creators.

RATING 5 / 10