In A Special Day, the giornata particolare in question is the 3rd of May, 1938, the historic meeting of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It depicts Italy at its height of fascist infatuation, as most of the country has shown up to witness the parade and speeches. But not everyone; after the first eight minutes of the film, which consists of newsreel footage of Hitler’s visit, the film focusses on Antonietta (Sophia Loren), a busy, frustrated housewife who would like to witness the events if only she wasn’t so busy. After her husband and six haughty children leave the house, she attends to her daily routine in peace, when the escape of the family bird brings her to the doorstep of her neighbour, Gabriele (Marcelo Mastroianni), a radio announcer who was fired for his anti-fascist sentiments. It is the story of these two lonely people, trapped and isolated for different reasons, and the unusual but touching bond that they form.
Though such a setting would be tempting to explore larger questions about living under a dictatorship, the spectre of fascism takes a back seat in A Special Day. Scolare focusses on the two main characters, and their attempts to alleviate each other’s struggles, but the historical significance of the day is always lurking in the background, the radio announcements almost providing a breathlessly fevered score which contrasts with the quiet human drama between Antonietta and Gabriele. The constant reminders of the meeting between the Fuhrer and the Duce taunt the main characters in different ways; Antonietta by reminding her of what she wants but can’t have, and Gabriele by confronting him with what he hates.
Whilst when we think of fascist Italy or Germany, we imagine the whole country swept up in nationalistic fervour, Antonietta and Gabriele remind us that there were some people who were left out of that. The difference is of course that Antonietta does not remain at home by choice, but what unites the two characters is that because of their circumstances, fascism has left them behind, and they are by no means the only ones. Gabriele eventually discloses that he is a homosexual, which at first Antonietta, like the rest of 1930s Italy, responds with hostility to, but both characters gradually overcome their ideological differences. However, the way this culminates, namely the two characters having sex, is ultimately disappointing. Not only does it contradict and undermine Gabriele’s brave revelation, but it is ultimately predictably standard, which counteracts the subversiveness that the film embodies up to that point. Gabriele makes love with her out of kindness, I guess, but their connection would have been better cemented if they had mutually expressed what they meant to each other in a more satisfying way.
Despite occasional lapses of logic such as these, A Special Day is a beautifully shot study of two outliers in fascist Italy. There are more comprehensive films about this period of history, but what A Special Day conveys is that little acts of kindness and love can be grand resilient political statements in themselves.
Dir: Ettore Scola
Scr: Maurizio Costanzo, Ruggero Maccari, Ettore Scola
Cast: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastoriani, John Vernon
Music: Armando Trovajoli
Runtime: 110 minutes
A Special Day is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 31st October 2016 courtesy of CultFIlms.