A lot of films have been made about the people who suffered under the tyrannical rule of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (and even more films have been made about the people who fought against those countries), but Ettore Scola's A Special Day centers on a more uncomfortable subject: the people who were seduced by the promises Hitler and Mussolini made. It is not a finger-wagging sermon, but an empathetic attempt to understand how ordinary, decent people can find ways to accept (and even embrace) horrible new realities. It is also, surprisingly enough, a remarkably tender and understated relationship drama.
The entire film unfolds over the course of a single day in 1938, as Benito Mussolini is rolling out the red carpet for Adolf Hitler (who is preparing to make a big speech in Rome). Though the first six or seven minutes of the film detail Hitler's arrival via archival footage, the rest of the film takes place in a humble apartment complex. Nearly everyone who lives in the complex has left for the day – some have gone to work, some have gone to school and almost everyone else has gone to Hitler's big welcome parade. Only a handful of people remain, including the weary housewife Antonietta (Sophia Loren, Two Women) and the local radio broadcaster Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita).
Antonietta wishes that she could have accompanied her husband and children to the parade, but there's simply too much work to do around the house. She's a conservative woman, and she nurses a crush of sorts on Mussolini (curating a scrapbook filled with photos, quotes and newspaper clippings). Why does she love him as much as she does? No direct answer is given, though a strong hint is provided by the fact that Antonietta leaves her radio on all day. While her lout of a husband is away, she's subjected to an endless stream of propaganda about Mussolini's greatness, nobility and masculinity. As depicted by the Italian media, he is the ultimate man, and no one else seems interested in suggesting otherwise.
The lonely housewife's daily routine is interrupted when her pet myna bird escapes and flies out the window, perching on the windowsill just across from Gabriele's apartment. Antonietta doesn't really know Gabriele very well (she's seen him around, but they've never spoken), but she rushes to his apartment and asks for his help. They retrieve the bird, and share a bit of friendly small talk. He comes over for coffee, and the small talk becomes a little larger. When Antonietta reveals the depths of her affection for Mussolini, Gabriele raises an eyebrow, but doesn't push back too hard. He clearly dislikes the current state of things, but he has reason to be cautious about voicing his concern too loudly (which is quite a predicament when you're a radio broadcaster). Eventually, we learn that he recently lost his job for saying things he shouldn't say, and that he's facing deportation in the immediate future.
One of the most immediately striking things about A Special Day is that it takes two of Italian cinema's most prominent sex symbols and attempts to deglamorize them. Loren and Mastroianni had worked together on many previous occasions (Marriage, Italian Style, The Priest's Wife, Sunflower, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow), and it's easy to understand why: she was beautiful, he was handsome, they had terrific chemistry together and they were both massive stars. Scola subverts our expectations, using light makeup to de-emphasize Loren's radiant beauty and turning Mastroianni – the consummate Casanova - into a shy, gay, liberal intellectual. It might have felt like a stunt (because it really is, if we're being honest), but thankfully Loren and Mastroianni are exceptional actors in addition to being great movie stars, and it doesn't take long for us to see the characters rather than the actors.
Antonietta is slow to pick up on the clues Gabriele drops about his sexuality, and begins to feel a certain attraction to him. She's certainly not looking for an affair – she's a “strong family values” sort of woman – but Gabriele is everything her husband is not (in more ways than she knows, but still). From the brief glimpse we get of her husband, we can see that he is brutish, crass and thoughtless. Gabriele is sensitive, inquisitive, thoughtful and attentive. He actually listens to her. He actually talks to her. Finally, in a crucial moment, he tells her that he is none of the things Mussolini believes a “real man” to be (“a husband, a father and a soldier”). Gabriele is theoretically everything Antonietta opposes, but she had never actually applied a human face to the people her country is shoving out. It's easy to hate certain types of people when you don't actually know any of those people.
Surprisingly little of this material feels forced or melodramatic, with only a handful of moments slipping into conventionality. Scola generally avoids saying things directly when he can find a way to quietly imply them, and he rewards attentive viewers with a lot of small gestures and little moments that reveal a great deal. The film is shot through a sepia-toned filter that suggests we are peering at a dusty old photograph, or perhaps reliving a faded memory. The approach perpetually reminds us that we are viewing this story from a distance (even in 1977, the war must have felt long ago and far away), but surprisingly, that doesn't detract from the experience: Antoinetta's one-day encounter with Gabriele transforms her into a better person, but it's too late for the film's message to sway the hearts of her fellow countrymen. Her story is a droplet of hope in a sea of horror and regret.
A Special Day
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 1977