Any full day depicted in a movie has to be special, almost by definition—if it were an ordinary day (as opposed to the ever-popular seemingly ordinary day), nobody would care. Ettore Scola’s 1977 drama A Special Day, however, makes good on its title by taking place entirely on a notable date in Italian history: May 6, 1938. That was the day Adolf Hitler came to Rome for a meet-and-greet with Benito Mussolini, presumably to discuss whether they should fail miserably in a joint attempt to take over the world. Most of the country, besotted with fascism, turned out to witness the parade and speeches; Scola devotes the film’s first eight minutes to archival newsreel footage of the events, in which Hitler appears to be received with a fervor akin to what the Beatles would experience on American soil in 1964. But the main story concerns two lonely people who remain at home, for different reasons, and forge a more intimate bond.
One of them would love to see Hitler, but has too much housework to do. First seen rousing her husband (played, for some reason, by Canadian actor John Vernon, best known as Dean Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House) and six kids early in the morning, Antonietta (Sophia Loren) clearly enjoys the peace and quiet, though it’s regularly interrupted by the squawks of the family’s pet mynah bird. When the bird escapes, Antonietta’s efforts to retrieve it bring her to the door of a stranger, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), whose window faces her across their enormous housing project. Gabriele, it emerges, is no particular fan of Il Duce, and vice versa—in fact, he’d been on the verge of committing suicide when Antonietta unexpectedly knocked. But he’s drawn to her all the same, and the two end up spending the day together, gradually realizing they have more in common than they initially imagined.
Having previously starred together in numerous films, including Marriage Italian Style and (no kidding) Sex Pot, Loren and Mastroianni both play against type here, confounding audience expectations. Antonietta could hardly be less glamorous, trapped as she is in a prison of domestic servitude; she casually mentions at one point that she’s likely to have one more child, as government assistance for large families kicks in at number seven. And Gabriele, it eventually emerges, is gay, which got him fired from his job as a radio announcer and is about to see him shipped off to Sardinia, in accordance with Mussolini’s anti-deviance policies. The halting progress of their one-day stand, as shared frustrations overcome ideological differences, is beautifully delineated… which makes it all the more disappointing when the tender refuge they take in one another turns sexual. Thankfully, the film doesn’t pretend that Gabriele suddenly undergoes a conversion, nor does it suggest that he’s bisexual—their lovemaking is mostly a passive act of kindness on his part. What’s troubling, rather, is the implicit suggestion that a woman can’t be fulfilled unless she’s getting properly laid. The carnal neediness is entirely hers, and comes off a bit demeaning.
That clearly wasn’t Scola’s intention, though. Indeed, while he co-wrote the film’s screenplay, he seems less invested in the central relationship than he does in the opportunity it affords him to convey a sense of constriction via color and sound (and then to offset it via elegant camera movements). Criterion’s Blu-ray carefully preserves A Special Day’s unusual color scheme, devised by Scola and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis (Death In Venice, L’Argent); some have called the look sepia-toned, but it’s more as if everything has been shot through a scrim of cold, weak coffee. And the soundtrack features a radio, located somewhere in the housing project’s courtyard, that blares announcements about Hitler and Mussolini’s activities all day long, assaulting Antonietta with a constant reminder of what she’s missing and Gabriele with an omnipresent reminder of what he’s lost (and what he hates). It’s an impressive formal achievement that gains power as the film goes along, even as the narrative concurrently diminishes. Nobody’s allowed to forget what’s special about this particular day. It’s shoved down their throats.