A Special Day (1977)

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A Special Day
Una Giornata Particolare
Dir. Ettore Scola
Premiered at Cannes May 17, 1977

In retrospect, time periods feel incredibly self-contained. How strange is it to think about the fact that Teddy Roosevelt watched Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession as a child? Or that the great Edwardian playwright George Bernard Shaw died while his country fought in the Korean War? Or, as in this case, that almost every great European filmmaker working in 1977 had grown up under fascism? One such man was Ettore Scola, a prolific but little-mentioned Italian director who, although he had not made an autobiographical film, created in A Special Day the type of film that requires a certain familiarity with what that mercifully lost world was like.

As suggested, A Special Day takes place over the course of a single day: May 8, 1938. On this day, Adolf Hitler has arrived in Rome, where the veteran fascist leader Benito Mussolini has put on an enormous pageant to welcome him. Fascism is on the rise all over western Europe, and few want to be left out of the celebration. Unfortunately for Antonietta (Sofia Loren), mother of six and wife of a fascist apparatchik (John Vernon), she is unable to afford a housekeeper and must care for the family apartment while everyone else joins the fun. Nearly alone in her building, she follows the family’s escaped myna bird to the home of a mysterious single man named Gabriele (Marcelo Mastroianni).

Neglected by her husband, Antonietta is drawn to Gabriele, a laid-off radio announcer, even as she discovers to her horror that he was fired from the national broadcaster RAI for not being a member of the Fascist Party– having been kicked out of the Party for his homosexuality. His unseen lover imprisoned in Sardinia, Antonietta had caught him just as he was about to commit suicide. Her state-mandated revulsion, echoed in the constant broadcast of speeches by Hitler and Mussolini, belies her actual feelings for Gabriele, both misplaced attraction to him and general sympathy.

In spite of the excitement that Antonietta is meant to feel, the mood of A Special Day is intimate and somber. Seemingly filmed in black and white and re-colored by hand, it resembles both film footage of the era and a faded memory. Stars Loren and Mastroianni may have been sex symbols in their own time, but here they are anything but; casualties of a way of thinking that has drained all color from the world. In a film made up of conversations, their performances are told mostly without words. For that, and for Scola’s cleverly detailed portrait of everyday life in that era, A Special Day is one of the finest films of 1977 so far.

How Did It Do?
A Special Day was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as was Marcelo Mastroianni for Best Actor in a Lead Role. The film won neither, though it got a ton of other industry awards. The film was chosen to be among 100 Italian films from 1942-1978 “to be saved” by a panel of judges, and critics were similarly positive, with 100% on RottenTomatoes. Not included in that aggregate is Ruth Gilbert of the New York Review, who complained that the stars’ playing against type was disorienting. This is not a problem that has lasted with age.

Next Time: Star Wars

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