It’s debatable whether the meeting of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Rome, in 1938, was a special day, but it was a day that changed the lives of Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni) and Antonietta (Sophia Loren). After seeing her extended family off to the parade, Antonietta, a depressed housewife, meets Gabriele, a radio broadcaster reviled by his neighbours for being a known anti-fascist, an unusual and unpopular position in those days. Although a fascist sympathiser, Antonietta can’t attend the parade because of her domestic duties; Gabriele stays home because he feels lonely in a country that considers him a criminal just for being different. In fact he feels so lonely he’s about to commit suicide when Antonietta knocks on his door to ask for a strange favour. And that sets off a story about two desolate people knowing and finding emotional support in each other.
A Special Day is mainly about life under fascism but it takes the unusual route of not demonizing it directly through ponderous, preachy sermons. In fact, fascism is depicted as a normal activity in the movie, and fascists as ordinary people with children, spouses, jobs, aspirations, etc, rather than monsters. The real deviant is Gabriele, an intellectual who refuses to get on with the program, not for particularly idealistic principles but for personal reasons carefully revealed throughout the movie.
Antonietta’s life isn’t any easier just because her household is a fascist. With a husband and six children to take care of, she has given up her dreams and happiness to serve others. Barely literate, she resents the fact that her husband is cheating on her with a schoolmistress. Although living in a house full of people, her entire personality expresses as much loneliness and sadness as Gabriele’s. Loren’s performance is particularly remarkable for the way she tones down her legendary beauty to become a pale, weary-looking, sunken-eyed woman in her mid-forties. If there’s any doubt that Loren was an excellent dramatic actress, this movie is proof.
As the day marches on, they discuss what it means to be happy, tolerance, freedom and human dignity. Hope arises when Antonietta learns to respect Gabriele and his differences, in spite of everything she was taught to believe in. The movie is stagy and wordy, taking place mostly inside dingy rooms, as they move from one apartment to another and back, always having conversations in which they lay bare their deepest fears, dreams, sorrows and views about life. But Mastroianni and Loren are on hypnotic mode here, and even if the screenplay weren’t outstanding already, their performances should hold any viewer’s attention in thrall.
Director Ettore Scola, however, is no slouch. The movie, after several minutes of original footage showing Hitler arriving in Rome, opens with a long take that lasts almost five minutes: the camera slowly moves across the façade of a building complex, enters Antonietta’s apartment and follows her as she wakes up each one of her children and gets them ready for the parade. The movie was appropriately shot in a complex built in the thirties, with iron bars running along windows giving it the look of prison bars, and yellowish apartments oppressively facing each other, as if no tenant is safe from the prying eyes of neighbours. Like a stage play it may be, but the attention to atmosphere makes up for dazzling camerawork exercises.
Inside, Antonietta’s apartment is riddled with fascist motifs, portraits of Mussolini, banners and flags, and religious art. It’s a sharp contrast to Gabriele’s apartment, which shows abstract (or degenerate, as it was called at the time) art hanging on the walls, and piles of books. Their personalities are clearly delineated without waste of words. The movie tells a lot through pictures. Fascist and Nazi symbols are almost omnipresent around them, and Antonietta even has a caged bird that symbolises their condition.
Although it’s a talking heads movie, dramatic silence and noise are as much a part of it. Radios blare their announcements and songs at dramatic intervals, and the air is awash with the cheers of distant crowds bringing the historical meeting into the lives of the two protagonists. All this subtlety makes A Special Day an unusual political movie. Political cinema always runs the risk of wearing its beliefs on its sleeve, certain that an important message is enough, and that things like aesthetics just get on the way of whatever point the filmmaker is trying to make from his pulpit.
A Special Day is an entertaining, deeply humanist movie, whose politics are organically entwined with the story of two people searching for a new purpose in their lives. Anyone who’s ever been treated unfairly just because he’s different, or anyone who simply opposes intolerance on moral grounds, or deplores the curtailment of civil liberties, cannot fail to be moved by this special movie.
Director: Ettore Scola
Screenplay: Ruggero Maccari, Maurizio Costanzo, Ettore Scola
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, John Vernon
Runtime: 110 min