Set in 1938, the backdrop to ‘Una Giornata Particolare’ is Hitler’s visit to Rome on May 6th and in fact the entire film takes place over the course of just this one day. The basic structure of the film involves two equal protagonists with everyone else reduced to the background and most of the time simply absent and in this respect it reminds me of that excellent but largely forgotten 1972 film ‘Sleuth’ with Laurence Olivier and a young Michael Caine squaring off with nobody else involved, just a couple of policemen at the end in very minor roles.
Any film with essentially only two characters requires them both to produce exceptional performances and ‘A Special Day’ doesn’t disappoint, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni at the peak of their powers.
The film opens with six full minutes of actual newsreel footage of Hitler’s visit. It’s a highly choreographed, edited piece of film shot by Mussolini’s propaganda unit and from a distance of 83 years there’s something slightly pathetic about the footage, especially the cartoonish figure of the Italian king whose demeanor reeks of subservience to the Führer.
It would have been easier and more obvious to include in the film some of the brutality of Mussolini’s regime but to his credit the director Ettore Scola instead made an understated and subtle film focusing instead on the soul crushing drudgery of life under fascism. He doesn’t even show any uniformed fascist bullies pushing people around, perhaps because by 1938 there was no-one left to push around.
Mussolini’s opponents were all either dead, in exile or imprisoned on one of the many Italian islands that made up the fascist penal archipelago. After 16 years Mussolini was at the height of his power and it was absolute.
So rather than show any of this naked power and perhaps also in a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, with its constantly streaming propaganda, Scola uses a simple radio blaring out a running commentary of the day's meeting between the two fascist leaders. This continuous soundtrack of fascism reaches every corner of the apartment building in which the narrative unfolds and is ever-present in the background.
Making Sophia Loren look ordinary must have been no easy task for the make-up artist but in her role as Antonietta she encapsulates perfectly the subordinate role of the mother and housewife under fascism, every day the same and in every way inferior to her husband, no more than a chattel. We see little of the husband but enough to recognize hints of Stanley Kowalski in him and his main goal as a loyal fascist apparatchik is to father a seventh child in order to qualify for a cash bonus under Mussolini’s ‘Battle for Births’ program.
The 52 year old Marcello Mastroianni puts to good use the melancholy side of his personality in the role of Gabriele and the effortless cynicism that one often sees from him in other roles is replaced here with a sense of hopelessness and resignation at his situation but at the same time in his facial expressions there is a yearning and desperation for something better. He knows he is beaten but his spirit refuses to be crushed and he sees in Antonietta that hers is already lost and he wants to revive it, if only for a day.
The interaction between Antonietta and Gabriele provides the main substance of the film and to delve further into it would be to spoil the enjoyment for those who have yet to watch it.
The director, Ettore Scola, who died in 2016 was a legend of the Italian cinema both as a screenwriter and as a director with many films to his credit over a long career.
In one of those strange coincidences Scola was also in fact a 7 year old boy somewhere in the crowd in 1938 in a child's black shirt in the opening film footage when Hitler came to town. Perhaps it was this very personal connection to the event that prompted him use the actual footage for the opening to his film. The author Alexander Stille in his family biography 'The Force of Things' mentions that his father, Ugo Stille (later to become a legendary journalist), was also present that day as an 18 year old soldier and one of Mussolini's "toy soldiers on parade" as his son describes them. No doubt goose stepping to perfection but in fact never having been taught how to use a gun and, as a security precaution, with no live rounds in his rifle that day.
As a lifelong communist and card carrying member of the Italian Communist Party there is a certain irony that was probably lost on Scola in 1977 when this film was made, because irony is often lost on communists. The irony is that he could have just as easily shot the film in real time using Russian characters and a similarly depressing building in 1977 Moscow instead of portraying 1938 Rome.
That doesn’t make his film any less valid in pointing out the awfulness of life under fascism in Italy in the 1930s but it does raise the question of how he could make a film about the evils of totalitarianism and not see the hypocrisy of his own membership and support for a political party largely funded by the Soviet Union, which in the years before the making of this film had brutally suppressed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968 and was routinely shooting people simply trying to move from one part of Germany to the other. Italian communists I have found rarely acknowledge their complicity in the evils of the Soviet Union, which was even more brutally totalitarian than Mussolini's fascism.
'A Special Day' was both a critical and commercial success, perhaps the highlight of Scola's long career and it was nominated for just about every award possible, winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film as well as a host of domestic Italian film awards.
There are two inconsequential but strange things that I noticed about the film that belong to the category of movie trivia I suppose.
The first was seeing Dean Vernon Wormer in the opening scene playing Antonietta's boorish husband. If you're not American or have not seen the classic American comedy 'National Lampoon's Animal House' this reference will be lost on you but it's perhaps the role that the actor John Vernon is best known for. Why he would pop up in a tiny part in an Italian language film is unclear but he obviously couldn't speak the language because his few lines are clearly dubbed. Any number of Italian actors could have played the part so it's just one of those odd film mysteries.
The second strange thing was seeing Alessandra Mussolini in the film credits at the end. She was 15 in 1977 so I presume she played the eldest child. She's the daughter of Benito Mussolini's fourth son, and Sophia Loren is her maternal aunt so I guess that explains it.
Anyhow, we both like this film a lot and it's certainly an Italian classic. You can choose to see it as a slightly depressing and sad film, devoid of optimism, or as an uplifting testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit but whichever lens you view it through, the performances of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni make the film well worth watching.