A SPECIAL DAY (Ettore Scola, 1977)

Which is the best of director Ettore Scola’s nearly forty films? I believe it is Una giornata particolare. The confinement of the action to a single day seems to have liberated his humane and technical gifts. Scola won the David di Donatello Award as best director; he, along with co-writers Ruggero Maccari and Maurizio Costanzo, won the screenplay prize from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists; the film won the French César as the year’s best foreign-language film.

What is the day when the film’s action occurs? May 8, 1938, when Adolf Hitler, heralded on the radio as “a man of peace,” rolls into Rome for his first meeting with Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Following the celebratory rally, Emanuele tells his wife, Antonietta, and their six children that they will be able to tell others and themselves twenty or thirty years hence, “I was there.” Emanuele even suggests that they name a future child Adolf to commemorate the importance of this day. But, for Antonietta, who stayed behind rather than attend the public events, Hitler’s visit is not what made the day “special.” She meets for the first time a neighbor of hers, who helps her retrieve the family’s escaped pet bird. The two lonely persons, living in apartments across the courtyard from one another, spend the day together, reaching out to one another, learning to care about one another, in part as a refuge from the cold-blooded political event unfolding outside. They even make love—or rather Antonietta makes love with him. Gabriele, gracious, assents. Gabriele is a homosexual. Used to her spouse’s autocratic manner, in bed and out (“He doesn’t talk; he just gives orders”), Antonietta finds an unexpected safe haven with Gabriele. How was their lovemaking for him? she asks. “It isn’t that I can’t make love with a woman, you understand. But it’s different. I am still what I am.”

After dinner, with Emanuele in bed waiting for her, Antonietta starts reading the copy of The Three Musketeers with which Gabriele earlier gifted her. As she reads the line, “His vulnerability remained intact,” Gabriele is being led away by authorities to his political exile—the fate at the time of Italy’s “subversives” and “perverts.” Despite the show of comradery between Italy and Germany on this special day, Germany would later invade and occupy Italy. Fates turned grimmer then.

The film opens brilliantly. What sounds like a stormy wind accompanies a blank screen; by degrees we realize we are listening to an approaching train. (Symbolically, it is both—and this justifies the aural confusion.) It is Hitler’s arrival, which we see in an extended newsreel introduction that is accompanied by an announcer’s voiceover. The shot from inside the train compartment as Hitler takes in the awaiting crowds alerts us that we are watching “official” German propaganda. Hitler is a liar and a thief intent on co-opting Italy’s soul—and Italy, on its part, is generally inclined to cede to this.

The noisy black-and-white news footage yields to a film in color—and, for now, a mostly silent film. In an apartment complex, someone drapes a flag over a railing for the occasion; its most prominent feature is the Nazi swastika. Down in the courtyard of the complex the camera, looking up, rotates. The implication is this: There are human stories through each of these windows. This stressing of individuals, of course, runs counter to the fascistic disposition, which is summarized in Scola’s later La famiglia (1987): “The will of everybody becomes the will of one man.” The camera, paced to a spirit of melancholy (and matching Antonietta’s predominant mood*), moves upwards and approaches the window of Antonietta’s apartment; it enters as Antonietta, the only one yet up in the household, begins the day with morning coffee. She awakens her children and spouse. Emanuele chides her for not having awakened him sooner; despite her saying she earlier tried to awaken him, we may be thinking that she had been stealing some private time alone. Altogether, Antonietta seems to be a depressed individual. Her voice does not rise to a level of enthusiasm even with her children. Subsequent remarks by Antonietta make plain that hers is an unhappy marriage in which her husband, who seems devoid of tenderness or kindness, dominates. Emanuele, we see, is also full of niggardly complaints against Antonietta. In effect, her neighbor across the courtyard, Gabriele, provides her with a day’s respite, a day’s lifeline. But from her window, at the last, she watches as he is taken away.

There is no escaping the monstrous alliance between Mussolini’s Fascism and Hitler’s Nazism. The historic event of the two leaders’ meeting is being broadcast on the radio, which we hear in Antonietta’s apartment when Gabriele visits. This is ironical since Gabriele himself had been a radio announcer—only, he explains, he is currently “retired” until some matters are cleared up. Gabriele is not a Fascist, but it remains unclear how actively anti-Fascist he is. For the state, the tipping point is he is gay. It is on this basis that a quarrelsome neighbor of hers warns Antonietta not to associate with this man. This neighbor uses the word depravity. When Antonietta, trying to learn just what others hold against him, confronts him about it, Gabriele explains: “I’m none of those things [that a man must be]: a husband, a father, a soldier.” (This is only one example of the exceptionally high level at which the script operates.) Other films have stressed the connection between Italian patriarchy and the Church; Scola stresses instead the connection between this patriarchy and a military mystique. In short, Gabriele’s sexual orientation disqualifies him as a patriarch of any kind. In a way, Antonietta’s own dissatisfaction, her not quite fitting into the life of the nation either, helps explain the two’s affinity for one another.

But, above all, each is attracted to the other for the kindness that this new acquaintance offers. This need overcomes the wide difference between them, which the script deftly encapsulates in Gabriele’s educated manner and Antonietta’s lack of education. Antonietta is someone who has felt stupid, and has been made to feel stupid (for instance, by Emanuele), all her life. She knows at once that Gabriele is likely the most learned soul whose path her own has crossed, and yet he doesn’t disparage or ridicule her. Rather, he gives her one of his books to read. One’s heart aches for how desirous Antonietta is for some acknowledgement from the world of her intelligence. Her husband is especially cruel in this regard, but I think it is even harder for her that her eldest son treats her so snarkily and dismissively.

People should not be dismissed. Everyone counts. Politically, fascism of any kind—whether Fascism, Nazism, Francoism, whatever—functions to include members of some groups in, and exclude members of other groups from, its preferred circle of validation. Despite their disparity in education, Gabriele and Antonietta are in the same boat. He must leave and she must stay put; but it is more or less the same punishment, the same imprisonment.

But they have their one day together, during which, in an act of kindness perhaps she will never fully appreciate, Gabriele lets Antonietta make love with him. How good of Scola, at the outset of their lovemaking, to let us see Gabriele’s face, which we are able to read as though it were an open book.

Yet in one way the two characters complement one another. Throughout, Antonietta jumps with nervousness each time the door bell rings—the consequence of living in a police state. On the other hand, Gabriele steadies her, applying reason. Gabriele is certain as to his fate; he is absolutely calm when he is taken away.

Marcello Mastroianni plays Gabriele. Let’s be honest; we may offer some initial resistance: after all, Marcello, gay? But he is excellent, especially in the scene immediately following Gabriele and Antonietta’s turn in bed. Mea culpa. Foolish me, to have elsewhere written that Sophia Loren acted well only for Vittorio De Sica. She is superlative here as Antonietta, fully deserving of her best actress prizes from both the David di Donatello awards and the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, that is to say, both Italy’s film industry and critics. Loren is utterly convincing and deeply moving as a woman in search of identity and autonomy at a time and place when these were routinely denied women. Indeed, her performance here is so beautiful that I’m wondering whether I might have been wrong in my overall assessment of her talent.

However, there are alternative explanations: Scola; the role touched a nerve in the range of Loren’s own experience.

* The camera movement that “discovers” Antonietta reverses the final shot in De Sica’s La ciociara (Two Women, 1960), where Sophia Loren is again the actress involved. There is no question in my mind that the shot is Scola’s homage to De Sica, who died a few years earlier. The slow pace of the camera’s movement suits the elegiac intent.

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