Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Special Day (1977)

          “I don’t think I’m anti-fascist,” the well-dressed man remarks. “If anything, fascism is anti-me.” Those simple words, revealing a world of sociopolitical significance, epitomize what makes the Italian drama A Special Day so resonant. By viewing cataclysmic historical events through the prism of one very specific relationship, the picture brings the past to vivid life while also conveying timeless truths about subjects ranging from compassion to tyranny. A Special Day is also noteworthy as one of the best collaborations between classic Italian stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Whereas many of their celebrated onscreen pairings are romantic comedies, A Special Day uses their easygoing chemistry in a more imaginative way, which nets powerful results.
          Set in 1938, the movie takes place in Rome on the day Adolf Hitler made a state visit to confer with Italy’s fascistic strongman, Benito Mussolini. The action revolves around a huge apartment building with a massive inner courtyard. In the morning, bedraggled housewife Antonietta (Loren) rouses her large family. Her husband, Emanule (John Vernon), is a staunch Mussolini supporter, so he plans to take all their kids to a rally celebrating Hitler’s visit. Given her backbreaking obligations of cleaning and cooking for the big family, Antonietta stays home. Once the apartment building is nearly empty, she happens into a conversation with a neighbor from across the courtyard, Gabriele (Mastroianni). We discover things about Gabriele gradually, learning that he’s a radio announcer recently fired from his position for mysterious reasons, and that just before he encountered Antonietta, he was close to attempting suicide.
          Giving away the other revelations about his character would diminish the experience of watching A Special Day, so broad strokes must suffice—over the course of a long day comprising conversations, flirtations, and intimacies, Antonietta discovers through her new friend a world of emotion and ideas and nonconformity that rocks her existence. By the end of the day, she’s almost a completely different person than the woman who first met Gabriele. And because the things we learn about Gabriele speak directly to the dangers of living under a totalitarian regime, he changes, too, if only in the sense of emerging from shadows by sharing provocative secrets with a friend.
          Directed by the acclaimed Ettore Scola, A Special Day achieves that rare trick in movies, presenting characters who are so fully realized they seem like real people; accordingly, even the most fanciful turns in the movie’s central relationship have credibility and depth. At different times, we experience Antonietta’s fear, loneliness, pride, and warmth, just as we experience Gabriele’s dignity, humor, joy, and sadness. Loren downplays her signature glamour, hewing closer to the earth-mother aspect of her screen persona, while Mastroianni effectively tweaks his urbane image. (Modern viewers may flinch at some aspects of the characterizations, but the portrayals fit the period during which the story takes place.) Also worth noting is the picture’s unique visual style. Scola and cinematographer Pasqualina de Santis employed a desaturated color scheme, putting the look of A Special Day somewhere between black-and-white and color, and while the look is jarring at first, it makes sense after a while; this is a story that exists between the margins of history, so it warrants an offbeat presentation.
          Given the way the horrors of World War II loom just outside the narrative, there’s something fundamentally grim about A Special Day. Surely, not every character we meet is destined to survive the next few years. Yet within the darkness, A Special Day provides much that is bright and uplifting, conveying how real human connection is the only way to bridge divides. Many well-deserved accolades came the film’s way, including two Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Film and for Mastroianni as Best Actor), as well as a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

A Special Day: RIGHT ON

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