Home Video Hovel: A Special Day, by David Bax
Perhaps no movie in history has better or more heartbreakingly illustrated the notion that politics is personal than Ettore Scola’s A Special Day. Over the space of one day, condensed into just over 100 minutes, Scola breaks down with aching compassion how a society’s politics can coldly exclude decent people and force others to conform or risk exclusion themselves.
A Special Day takes place in 1938 on the day Hitler first came to Rome and was greeted by a parade and rally. With the exception of an opening newsreel, the action unfolds entirely within one of those massive tenement buildings like the one from The Last Laugh, where thousands of people appear to live but everyone still knows one another and their business. Nearly every resident departs to witness the festivities. The only ones left behind are Antonietta (Sophia Loren) a housewife and mother of six whose brood has departed for the parade but insisted she stay behind to clean up after them and prepare their dinner for that evening, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), a former radio announcer who has only somewhat recently moved into the building, and the nosy, elderly caretaker (Francoise Berd).
The new Blu-ray makes special note of the color restoration that was done to painstakingly match the original intentions of late cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis (who also shot Franco Zeffirelli’s classic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet). The results are well worth the effort. A Special Day is in a sort of sepia-toned color palette that can feel depressingly washed out or dreamlike depending on the context. Nazi banners unfurl in a sickly rich brown. Yet the rooftop, with its lines of drying clothes, seems encapsulated in a cloud.
Antonietta and Gabriele meet when the former’s pet bird gets loose in the courtyard and perches on the ledge outside the latter’s window. The two spend the rest of the day going back and forth between their two apartments, talking, laughing and sometimes even dancing. Still, some of the film’s most lovely sequences are the periods of silence when they are in separate rooms doing separate things (he grinds coffee beans in the kitchen while she fixes her make-up in the bathroom, for instance) and we are given time to imagine what they are thinking about each other.
However, lest you think this is some sort of precursor to In the Mood for Love, we quickly learn things about them that will make things less than romantic and necessarily keep them out of each other’s arms for long. She, for instance, is loyal to the fascists to her core. She even keeps a scrapbook of the party leaders and knows the names of all of Mussolini’s horses. He, on the other hand, is barred from the party, has lost his job and faces deportation on account of his homosexuality. Scola is efficiently and commendably unsubtle in using the radio reports of the day’s ceremonies – blaring in the courtyard thanks to the caretaker – as a constant backdrop to let you know that everything these two people do, say and even think is dwarfed by the interests and guidelines of fascism. When Antonietta, not yet aware Gabriele is gay, insists to the caretaker that he is a decent man and cannot be any trouble, the older woman, practicing a bit of realpolitik, clarifies that his decency doesn’t matter if he’s not faithful to the party. The other side of that coin, she reminds us, is that those who are faithful to the party don’t necessarily have to be decent to be well thought of.
Gabriele, once his homosexuality has come to light, puts the screws on Antonietta a bit, asking her if she believes Mussolini’s words that only men can be geniuses. Shortly thereafter, De Santis gives us a shot in which the two are framed in neighboring doorways, with him seated and looking straight ahead and her standing, looking off to the side. They are both marginalized figures; he’s just more aware of it than she is. That’s because the party has a place for her as long as she chooses to live by their rules. He can never choose to be what they want him to be. In the final, crushing moments, we’re left to ponder what’s worse.
Features include a short film from last year starring Sophia Loren, interviews with Scola and Loren, television interviews from 1977 with Loran and Mastroianni and an essay by Deborah Young.