Italian cinema dream team Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni are cast against glamorous type and deliver two of the finest performances of their careers in this moving, quietly subversive drama from Ettore Scola. Though it's set in Rome on the historic day in 1938 when Benito Mussolini and the city first rolled out the red carpet for Adolf Hitler, the film takes place entirely in a working-class apartment building, where an unexpected friendship blossoms between a pair of people who haven’t joined the festivities: a conservative housewife and mother tending to her domestic duties and a liberal radio broadcaster awaiting deportation. Scola paints an exquisite portrait in sepia tones, a story of two individuals helpless in the face of fascism's rise.
"Decency has nothing to do with it. I know a thief who plied his trade in this very building. Now he's an officer in the army. So what if the man's a scoundrel? What matters is whether he's faithful to the party.
Film has a unique way of capturing a specific time period or era and preserving it in a series of composed images. Whether or not a film intentionally sets out to do this is irrelevant, it's an automatic side effect of shooting with specific equipment, the costuming, the technology available when a film is made, and most importantly the content of the film itself. Director Ettore Scola's 'A Special Day' starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni is a film that looks at a specific tumultuous era in history.
Rome is alive with vigor and patriotism as the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and the citizens of the city eagerly await the arrival of an important man who will change the face of Europe, Adolf Hitler. Accompanied by his generals, Hitler travels via train from Germany to the land of the Holy See in order to secure Germany and Italy's alliance. As the citizens of Rome pour out of their homes to line the streets and participate in parades and various other shows of support for the German leader, Antonietta (Sophia Loren) is left to clean and take care of a cramped apartment that she lives in with her husband Emanuele (John Vernon) and their six children.
As the landlady downstairs blasts the radio throughout the building, Antonietta can only listen to the festivities and dream of being a part of the fun and wish she was there. But she can't go. Antonietta must live up to her duty as a fascist woman and take care of the home so that her husband can be a good officer in the regime. It isn't until her mynah bird escapes, that Antonietta meets the only other remaining occupant of the building who didn't attend the festivities, a man by the name of Gabriele (Marcelo Mastroianni).
Helping her to recapture the bird, Gabriele is an attractive yet mysterious figure that Antonietta can't get out of her mind. When Gabriele comes over to her apartment for coffee the two begin to open up to one another in ways they don't often do to others. Gabriele sees a woman who is desperately trying to convince herself that her role in this world is right while Antonietta comes to learn of this handsome man's past as a black-listed radio announcer. Even after learning the reason why Gabriele lost his job, Antonietta can't hide what is in her heart. As the attraction between them builds and moves beyond shared interests and becomes physical, their growing respect and feelings for each other strain under the weight of societal expectations and the power of Mussolini's fascist government.
'A Special Day' is a mesmerizing character study of two people that are drawn together and yet torn apart because of the politics of an era. As people with differing political ideals or personal attributes were being labeled as undesirables and either kicked out of the country or sent off to re-education camps, one had little choice but to either conform, flee the country, or hide their true selves. Antonietta is a woman of great wonder and imagination who longs for the education that was denied her in order to be an honorable woman in Mussolini's Italy. Gabriele is a man who is not a fascist and he's a homosexual who has tried to hide his true nature but is now being forced to flee for his life. During one seemingly innocuous day, these two people will meet and share an experience they will remember for the rest of their days as a brief time when they were truly happy. It's a tragic yet beautiful story of love and compassion in a time when there was so little of both.
Sophia Loren and Marcelo Mastroianni light up the screen together. It's no wonder that both actors consider this film to be some of their best work. Every ounce of their versatile talents is left on the screen for the audience to see. Loren's natural beauty along with Mastroianni's gentlemanly manner fill their respective characters with real life and personality. A simple glance or a gesture says more than any number of words can say. Just one of these actor's performances would be a work to celebrate, but 'A Special Day' has them both in top form delivering the performance of a lifetime.
Director Ettore Scola with the help of cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis capture the confined spaces of the apartment building and how it bottles up the character's lives but through the use of fluid long takes, they're able to make the small world these two people share seem larger and more beautiful. At first you feel threatened by the dark monolithic structure these two people call "home" but then once they meet in person, and they see the world is better than it seems, the film's color pallet shifts from a deep sepia and some subtle colors are allowed to seep in just a little bit. It's enough to make you believe these characters meeting provided just enough joy for one day to make the world a better place.
'A Special Day' is a marvelous film that captures an era so richly that it feels like it was a film that was made in the 1930s and not forty years later. This is a film that is at all times equally heart-wrenching and joyous to watch. You feel for poor Antonietta and the life she's found herself in as well as Gabriele who we meet with a loaded gun beside him as he muddles through a meaningless task at his desk. These are people you want to see lead happy lives and for a few moments that are captured in this film - they are happy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'A Special Day' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection and is pressed on a Region A locked BD50 disc. Housed in a standard clear case, the disc comes with a booklet featuring a fascinating essay titled "Small Victories" by film critic Deborah Young.
As a title card at the beginning of the film states, the 4k restoration of 'A Special Day' won "Best Restored Film" at the 2014 Venice Film Festival - and it shows! Director Ettore Scola supervised the restoration including the specialized color grading to replicate the effect intended by cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis. The end results are quite simply a miracle of modern film preservation. Every glorious detail is on full display here without any hint of digital noise removal or any other compression artifact to spoil this incredible transfer. All you have to do is look at the wide shots of the apartment building when people are streaming out of their homes to go to the parade to appreciate the incredibly detail levels. If you wanted to count each brick in the building, you certainly could, and that says nothing of the clothing details and fine facial features on display! Colors are intentionally pushed to the deep browns and red sepia tones and this transfer captures them perfectly. The film has very subtle shifts when the characters meet and become friendly so blues, greens and reds become slightly more vibrant and noticeable. Black levels are strong and inky and shadows provide this film with a jaw-dropping sense of three-dimensionality to it. It feels like you can reach into your screen and touch this world. Truly, this one of the best restoration efforts I've ever seen and it makes for a glorious demo-worthy Blu-ray.
'A Special Day' arrives with a strong and resonate Italian LPCM 1.0 audio track with optional English subtitles. This is an impressively quiet sounding film as much of it takes place in close quarters like Antonietta's kitchen or Gabriele's living room. To that effect, the dialogue comes through crisp and clearly and keeps to the front. Since there aren't much in the way of dynamic sound effects, the only element to give this track any sense of movement is the sound of the radio announcement of the parade that echoes throughout the apartment building. There is just enough space around the individual elements to make this track feel alive and present at all times. The film's quiet score from Armando Trovajoli has a subdued presence that creeps in during specific scenes throughout the film and adds a nice sense of intimacy to the track. Without any age-related issues like hiss, pops, or breaks, this is a wonderful audio track.
Human Voice (2014) Directed by Sophia Loren's son Edoardo Ponti and starring Loren, the film was inspired by the play 'La voix humaine' by Jean Cocteau. The film may be short, but it packs an emotional punch and proves that Loren still has a magnetic screen presence.
Ettore Scola: (HD 21:13) This is a fascinating interview with the filmmaker as he discusses his influences, his love of history, working on the film as well as the politics of the film. It's also great to hear about his long friendship with his two stars and how working together was such a positive experience.
Sophia Loren: (HD 14:37) The legendary actress talks about her first meeting with Scola and her trepidations of working on such an important film when she herself is so introverted. It's nice to hear about the film's reception after it was released as well as working with Marcello Mastroianni on the film and their friendship.
The Dick Cavett Show: (SD 28:03 and 28:04 ) The first part of two episodes of the show where actors Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni discuss their entry into the world of filmmaking and acting. It's also great to hear about their interests and interpretations of their characters. It's also a lot of fun to hear how these two met and enjoyed working together. The setting of Cavett's then new show on PBS is a bit more cordial and less timed for jokes, although they do have moments of levity. These two episodes are well worth the watch.
Trailer: (HD 2:47) This is the original trailer for 'A Special Day' that has been fully restored. It's a wonderfully simple yet effective trailer that highlights the characters emotional journey against the backdrop of major world events.
It's difficult to heap any more praise upon The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of 'A Special Day.' The film is endearing, featuring two incredible performances by lead actors Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The video presentation is breathtaking and demo-worthy, and the film's audio is wonderfully clean and crisp sounding. Along with a collection of quality extra features, this release of 'A Special Day' is very highly recommended. Any fan of the film will be more than pleased with the quality on display with this Blu-ray.