I had never really heard of A Special Day till I watched it, only noticed it once when it was announced as a part of the Criterion Collection last year. Argent films’ new sub-label Cult Films has released it alongside Two Women as the first two films to come under the new banner. It’s an absolute pleasure of film and has a lot to say to about politics, sexuality and relationships in back in fascist Italy but also in today’s political climate.
It’s set during the space one day in 1938 and the date was May 8th, that day was when Adolf Hitler came down to visit Mussolini in Italy. Sophia Loren plays the housewife Antonietta who is staying home while the rest of the family go down to the parade that comes with the visit of the Führer. The family bird escapes and she must go visit the only other resident who has stayed behind which is Gabriele played by Marcello Mastroianni. They both end up spending the day together even if there is some friction between them. They start to warm to each other and she develops a crush on him. Antoniette however isn’t aware Gabriele is actually a homosexual.
First and foremost Loren is very subtle especially compared to the equally great but much bigger performance in Two Women. You can’t get an actor more charming than Mastroianni but he also has a sense of doom and gloom that only a great actor can bring to a role. His character’s introduction starts with him contemplating suicide. Both actors had worked together numerous times so they have an extraordinary chemistry, strangely enough they never started a offscreen relationship which both had done with previous co-stars.
The film was directed by Ettore Scola who directed many films but A Special Day seems to be the only one widely available in the English-speaking world. He co-wrote the script for the influential road comedy Il Sorpasso as well. However on the basis of this film his work should get re-released. The visual palette is so muted it also becomes sepia which just adds to the deep melancholy of the films. The film is very contained in the apartment block only leaving it at the beginning with a brilliant use of newsreel footage. He also expertly uses tracking shots throughout which never seem showy but elegant filmmaking at it’s finest.
The film’s melancholy steams from the fact you know from the get-go it’s not going to end well for each character. However they do have this one day together which breaks down the prejudices of Antoniette and gives Gabriele some hope. The film also deals with despite seeing yourself one way or the other that circumstance can change the way you see yourself. One of the most interesting aspects of Gabriele is that he isn’t necessarily a anti-fascist and has tried to conform but was rejected.
Overall A Special Day deserves to be revisited and contains two astonishing performances from its leads, easily Sophia Loren’s finest performance and would be Mastroianni’s if it weren’t for the Fellini films like 8½ and La Dolce Vita. It’s also simply one of the most visually pleasing films I’ve seen in a long time especially given it’s set all in one apartment complex. It’s also important to look back at these stories which deal with life under fascism especially with the Brexit vote and the election of Trump. The disc includes two documentaries one on Loren and the other on the films’ director Ettore Scola.