Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Special Day

A SPECIAL DAY (Scola, 1977)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 13, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Obey.” “Consume.” “Marry and Reproduce.” “Conform.”

The late, great Roddy Piper needed special glasses to see the subliminal messages the world's alien overlords used to train the populace in John Carpenter's science-fiction opus “They Live” (1988). In Ettore Scola's “A Special Day” (1977), Italy's Fascists clearly have the same agenda, but don't feel the need to be so coy about their conditioning program.

Scola's film begins with lengthy excerpts of newsreel footage documenting Hitler's historic visit to Rome on May 6, 1938 to cement his alliance with Mussolini as tens of thousands of adoring soldiers and citizens cheer and salute in enthusiastically choreographed lockstep. Der Fuhrer and Il Duce may have been meant for each other (if only until the blush of first love inevitably wore off) but 1977 audiences had to bide their time waiting for the couple they had really come to see, the top-billed glamorous duo of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

Parade footage eventually gives way to a slow-panning crane shot that traces out the courtyard of a high rise tenement and the many tiny lives visible through its windows before piercing into a single apartment. It is not yet six in the morning and Antonietta (Loren) already looks harried as she has gotten breakfast started while waking up her six children and husband, the latter of whom whines even more than the kids. Hitler's visit means a national holiday for everyone except a hard-working housewife, and after preparing everyone to participate the historic festivities, Antonietta settles in for a day of labor marked rigidly by an alarm clock she sets to go off every hour.

Her daily routine is disrupted when the family's pet mynah bird escapes its cage and flutters across the courtyard to the ledge of another apartment. Enter Gabriele (Mastroianni), that apartment's occupant and perhaps the only man in the complex who hasn't rushed out to the parade. After enlisting his help to retrieve the bird, Antonietta will soon discover why he hasn't joined in the celebration.

Loren, to say the least, plays against type. The famous international beauty wears only a single raggedy outfit the entire time, looking as plain and dowdy as Sophia Loren possibly can. Scola and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis up the ante by desaturating the color to such an extreme that viewers can easily be forgiven for thinking that they're watching a black-and-white film. Scola says his memories of fascism (he was seven on this real-life “special day”) are all swathed in “leaden gray.”

Mastroianni is typically suave but also profoundly melancholy. He is introduced fingering a pistol on his desk and it doesn't take long to figure out the major source of his anxiety. An impassioned phone call to the unseen Marco and mention of being fired from his job for “deviant” tendencies should clue in most viewers, but the cloistered, conservative Antonietta needs Gabriele to repeatedly shout the word “faggot” before she figures out the full story.

Initially jarred by Gabriele's reveal, Antonietta finds more solidarity in their shared loneliness and oppression and the two connect, quite intimately, over the course of this special day. The connection promises only a temporary reprieve, however. Even sharing private conversations in their apartments, they are constantly threatened by a vigilant outside world ordering them to conform, whether from a nosy concierge who cherishes party loyalty above all, the constant blaring of the Italian National Radio broadcast covering the day's glorious events, or depictions of Il Duce's slogans like “The man who is not husband, father, and soldier is not a man.” Obey. Consume. Marry and Reproduce.

Scola and co-writer Ruggero Maccari are generally better known for comedy, but provide vivid reminders here that Fascism's intolerance was all encompassing, viciously homophobic and misogynistic in addition to its better documented sins. Loren and Mastroianni were a frequent screen couple with an easy chemistry that won over audiences time and again, and their magical pairing works even in perhaps their most atypical combination. To my taste, after Gabriele's big reveal to Antonietta, the film shifts from a sensitive, close observation of their daily lives to a slightly forced (or perhaps “rushed” is a better term) connection of two lonely souls,but consider that a minor quibble about a resonant and moving film.

“A Special Day” was restored in 2014 at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cinetece Nazionale in Rome. Criterion's high-def 4K transfer is sourced from this restored print and was supervised by Ettore Scola. The film's distinguishing feature is its dramatically desaturated color palette. I am unable to judge how close this version is to the theatrical release, but with Scola's supervision we can assume it's accurate. Image detail is sharp throughout which really shows up in closeups. I didn't notice any signs of damage or deterioration. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and clean and dialogue heavy. The moody score by Armando Trovajoli is well preserved in this lossless transfer. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Criterion has included a handful of interviews as supplements.

The first is a new (May 2015) interview with director Ettore Scola (21 min.) in which he discusses his early career as a journalist then as a screenwriter before finally taking the helm as director. He reflects briefly on his youth in Fascist Italy and delves into more details about the film's production, including how Sophia Loren adjusted her approach from her more glamorous roles.

Second is a a new (June 2015) interview with Sophia Loren (14 min.) in which she discusses her involvement with the project. She initially feared she wouldn't be up to the challenging material, but her husband (and the film's producer) Carlo Ponti had faith in her prowess. Fortunately she listened and forged ahead.

The disc also includes two episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” from Oct 10, 1977 and Nov 4, 1977, running 28 minutes apiece. The two episodes are halves of the same interview, conducted with Loren and Marcelo Mastroianni when the two stars were in New York to promote “A Special Day.”

Criterion also adds on “Human Voice” (2014, 25 min.), a recent short film starring Sophia Loren and directed by her son Eduardo Ponti. The short is inspired by Jean Cocteau's 1930 play “La voix humaine.”

The collection is rounded out by an original Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by film critic Deborah Young.

Final Thoughts:
Surely someone must have used the tagline “Loren and Mastroianni Like You've Never Seen Them Before!” “A Special Day” is a quiet gem, somewhat atypical both for its stars and its director. Criterion hasn't packed the disc with extras, but the interviews are compelling and the high-def transfer is sourced from a recent restoration that presents the film as vibrant as you've likely ever seen it. Certainly a strong recommendation.

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