This two-person drama does provide something special
Italy’s 1977 Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film—which earned an Oscar nomination in that category—plays like an old-fashioned feature with contemporary sensibilities. In actuality, Una Giornata Particolare [English title: A Special Day] is a modern film that explores the effects of outmoded—though, unfortunately, not yet defunct—social mores. It tells the tale of a man and a woman who meet by chance, with their subsequent interaction revealing the quiet but desperate struggles of their lives. Set against the backdrop of Adolf Hitler’s state visit to summit with Benito Mussolini in May of 1938, the story takes place largely in just two small apartments in Rome. Both the major elements of the setting—the loudly public pomp surrounding the meeting of the two dictators, as well as the limited mise-en-scène of the main characters—contribute an oppressive sensibility to the film that turns out to be in lockstep with its overall themes.
Director Ettore Scola sets the stage for the film by opening with a six-minute newsreel—chilling in its celebratory tone—that details the beginning of Hitler’s weeklong visit to Italy. The citizens of Rome have greeted the Führer with spontaneous displays of cheering upon his arrival in the ancient city. The day after—the eponymous special day—Hitler will accompany Il Duce to a massive military parade conducted especially for the occasion. Hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors will line the streets to bear witness to the heavily promoted event. Businesses throughout the city will send their workers to attend the procession, and schools will bring their students.
As dawn rises that day over a Roman apartment block comprising several mid-rise buildings, the concierge—an older, dowdy woman with hair on her upper lip and a streak of arrogant self-righteousness in her mien—unfurls a pair of large flags to hang side by side in the complex’s two-level courtyard. One standard features Italy’s Savoy cross, while the other is emblazoned with a Nazi swastika. After panning across the façades of the buildings in the residential block, the camera enters an apartment through a window and, in a beautifully choreographed and perfectly executed tracking shot that lasts nearly four minutes, follows Antonietta Tiberi as she wakes her family. Portrayed with doleful weariness by Sophia Loren, the middle-aged housewife and mother of six children—ranging in age from about four to about seventeen—trudges through a life clearly beset. She rises before dawn, prior to the rest of her family, so that she can begin discharging her domestic duties; she makes coffee, irons clothes, rouses the clan, feeds them breakfast, and otherwise helps prepare them for the day ahead. Wearing drab clothing and a haggard expression, Antonietta appears put upon, weighed down not just by her household obligations, but by a contemptuous husband (John Vernon as Emanuele Tiberi) who treats her, at best, like a workaday servant, and at worst, like a woman he neither respects nor even likes. When she awakens him that day, he grouses about her nagging him at five in the morning, and when she tells him that the time is closer to six, he complains that she did not bestir him earlier—which, she informs him, she has previously already attempted to do twice. Later, after slicking his hair back with grease, the husband unapologetically wipes his hands on the skirt of Antonietta’s dress, and when she comments on his classless behavior, he bemoans the state of her wardrobe, which he characterizes as “rags.”
After all the other members of the Tiberi family—and seemingly every resident of their housing block—have departed for various rallies along the parade route, a discouraged Antonietta continues the numerous chores that populate her day. Anchored to home because of the amount of housework she needs to do, she laments to herself that families only get one mother, while hers could use three. Then, as she feeds the Tiberis’ pet bird, it escapes their apartment. It alights across the way, outside a window in a neighboring building. Antonietta attempts to signal the man she sees on the other side of the glass, without success.
That man—Marcello Mastroianni in the role of Gabriele—sits alone at a desk, addressing small envelopes by hand. A gun sits ominously beside the paperwork, and Gabriele eyes it with a serious demeanor. Is he considering committing a crime? Perhaps even murder? Before he reveals whatever dark thoughts infest his mind, he rushes to his feet and, in a flurry of movement, sweeps the contents of the desktop onto the floor.
A moment later, his doorbell rings. Antonietta has determined the location of the apartment beside which her family’s bird roosts, and she has come to attempt to retrieve the pet. Although Gabriele mentions that he has lived in the neighboring building for two months, it is the first time that he and Antonietta have met. In short order, the pair retrieve the Tiberis’ errant mynah bird, but that does not complete the interaction between the two neighbors. The unplanned encounter between strangers launches a day that they will end up spending together, first in one apartment, then another, eventually up onto the roof, and finally back down into the building.
When Gabriele initially greets his neighbor, he does so in something of a daze—likely the result of whatever strong emotions motivated him to violently clear his desk, and his subsequent scurrying to clean up the mess before answering the door. After a few moments with Antonietta, though, his bearing toward her changes. He meets her despondency with good cheer and laughter. He also thanks her for coming along at just the right moment, when he stood on the cusp of doing something foolish—implying to the audience that, when he studied his gun, he contemplated not murder, but suicide.
Upon first meeting Gabriele, Antonietta clearly notices—and appreciates—his good looks, and she takes particular note when he mentions his bachelorhood. She also admires the many books spread across the furniture and floor of his front room, asking if he has read them all, and it impresses her when he says that he has. With great interest, Antonietta picks up a copy of The Three Musketeers, which he offers to let her take with her. She demurs, saying that it will take her too long to read it. In declining to accept the book, Antonietta manifests a forlorn outlook on her life, as well as a dearth of self-esteem; not only do her days not allow her time to read for pleasure, but even if they did, she believes she lacks the capacity to make her way through the novel with reasonable alacrity.
Gabriele invites Antonietta to stay for coffee, but while she appears tempted, she declines and prepares to leave and return home. When a telephone call interrupts them, Gabriele immediately answers it, his manner growing serious and his voice dropping to measured tones as he speaks with somebody he clearly cares about and misses. He also mentions the recent arrest of a friend, who he believes will be released after the Führer’s visit—all of which he sadly accepts as a matter of course.
After the phone call, as Antonietta starts to leave, Gabriele realizes that they have not properly introduced themselves to each other. They do so, and as she exits his apartment and heads down the hallway, he calls after her to say that she has a pretty name. The compliment halts her in her tracks; she plainly receives few, if any, encomiums in her everyday life, and so she is unsure how to react to such words from a handsome stranger.
Allowing herself just a moment’s pause, Antonietta continues on, descending to the lobby level, where she exits Gabriele’s building and crosses toward her own. In the apartment block’s courtyard, she passes the concierge, who has set her radio at the window. Coverage of the military parade commemorating Hitler’s visit blares across the plaza—it began with the words, “Hail, immortal fatherland”—and it will continue throughout the day. The thunderous broadcast will provide an inescapable auditory backdrop until the event ends, serving as a palpable reminder of the Fascist state’s constant intrusion into the lives of its people.
Back in her own apartment, Antonietta returns to her household duties, though her thoughts do not stray far from Gabriele. As she sets about cleaning, she periodically peers through the windows into his apartment. When she sees him on the telephone, she remarks to herself that, “He called her back right away,” then attempts to convince herself of her own indifference by asking, “What do I care, anyway?”
But Antonietta obviously does have an interest in the man she just met. So too is Gabriele interested in her, as evidenced moments later when he rings her doorbell. He has brought his copy of The Three Musketeers to her, claiming that she forgot to take it when she left, though they both know her memory did not fail her, that she declined the book. He ultimately convinces her to accept the novel before moving to leave. But then, seemingly on impulse, he asks her to invite him to stay for coffee, which she does.
As the two neighbors converse, they begin to reveal themselves. Through attention and observation, through empathy and understanding, they learn about each other. In some ways, they could not be more different: Antonietta, an uneducated homemaker, a married mother of six, and Gabriele, an erudite radio announcer, a single man who finally confides that he is gay. At the same time, the pair find in each other kindred spirits, by virtue of their crushing solitude. Antonietta lives a dreary, emotionally solitary existence. She is overworked, taken for granted by her children, and poorly treated by her unfaithful husband. Gabriele appears to have more love in his life, but which he cannot act upon, at least not openly. Considered a deviate because of his homosexuality, he has been discharged from his employment, and also faces potential arrest and imprisonment. Antonietta and Gabriele can find little relief from the burdens of their day-to-day lives, much less any genuine fulfillment.
Twice during Gabriele’s visit to the Tiberis’ apartment, the concierge appears at the door. Although the older woman makes an excuse each time, she clearly intends to insert her own sense of morality into the situation. On a day when the apartment block is virtually empty, she has witnessed Antonietta walking from her building to Gabriele’s and back again, and then Gabriele making his way from his building to Antonietta’s. On her first trip to the Tiberis’, the concierge warns Antonietta about him, saying that he is peculiar, and that she neither likes nor trusts him. Later, she explicitly denounces Gabriele as a naysayer and an anti-Fascist. As a cinematic device, the concierge stands in perfectly as an allegorical figure representing the controlling, invasive state.
Taken aback by the claim of Gabriele’s opposition to the Mussolini regime, Antonietta eventually confronts him about it. Despite her daily misery, at least in part perpetuated by the Italian government’s institutionalized subjugation of women, she supports Il Duce. Gabriele even finds a scrapbook celebrating the authoritarian leader, which he at first ascribes to the efforts of Antonietta’s children, but he then discovers that she has created the tribute herself. He avows that he does not think of himself as anti-Fascist, but that, rather, “Fascism is anti-me.”
The assertion makes sense. The body politic under Mussolini strictly regiments the lives of the Italian people, both economically and socially. Not only do the Fascists exalt country over individual, they also define those characteristics and roles of citizens that are officially acceptable. Women remain in the home, as wives and mothers. There is no place for homosexuals.
Driven by her own desire for genuine companionship, Antonietta finds more than forgiveness for Gabriele. She recognizes his decency, and takes refuge in the kindness he offers her. He also finds something gratifying in Antonietta’s need for his friendship. As unlikely a couple as they may be, they manage, however briefly, to curtail their loneliness by spending time with each other.
Wearing virtually no cosmetics in her role as Antonietta, Sophia Loren gives a powerful, nuanced performance. She portrays a woman whose life is destitute of warm emotion, but in whom a fire still burns. Though uneducated, Antonietta is not stupid, and her evolving introspection allows her to find the strength to open herself up to Gabriele for the brief time they have together. Ms. Loren did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, but the quality of her work merited it.
Marcello Mastroianni did earn a Best Actor nod for his role in Una Giornata Particolare. Subtle and complex, his performance is nothing short of a tour de force. He layers multiple emotions on his character, from the honest love he carries within him to the self-loathing the Fascists have caused him to feel, from his compassion for Antonietta’s subordinated existence to his forced optimism, from the high to the low and points between.
Director Ettore Scola guides both his lead actors confidently and with finesse through a well-observed script, which he co-wrote. The muted color palette of cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, sepia-tinged to the point of verging on black and white, serves the story well. Perhaps most notably, the film, while telling the tale of two people on one particular day, encompasses so many more individuals like them—not just in 1938 or other recesses of time, but in the modern world. In Western Europe, as in America and elsewhere, women continue to face rampant inequity, in the way they are compensated, in the opportunities open to them, and in the ways they are treated, both professionally and personally. Similarly, despite recent strides in such matters as same-sex marriage, homosexual men and women regularly confront prejudice, ensconced in many places in the laws of the land. Una Giornata Particolare offers a poignant and powerful story set in a bygone era, but that still resonates today.
***½ (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III