A testament to the importance of restoration, the new digital transfer of Ettore Scola’s 1977 title A Special Day is a beauty to behold. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, it went on to collect a number of accolades, winning a Golden Globe and a Cesar for Best Foreign Film, and scoring Marcello Mastroianni an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Scola is one of the great Italian auteurs who hasn’t received the same international renown as Fellini, Pasolini, Petri, and others, all considerable forces by the time Scola’s career was taking off in the early 1970s. He’s played in competition at Cannes eight times (winning Best Director in 1976 for Ugly, Dirty and Bad and Best Screenplay in 1980 for La Terrazza), and his most recent film, 2013’s How Strange to Be Named Federico was a playful homage to Scola’s friend, Fellini. In 2014, Criterion restored his 1962 title Il Sorpasso, helping audiences revisit the considerable, and prolific career of a great director.
In 1938 Rome, Mussolini welcomes Adolf Hitler to the city while its denizens clamor to be a part of the momentous occasion. However, two individuals residing within the same apartment complex do not attend, for very different reasons. House wife Antoinetta (Loren) shamefacedly stays behind to clean house (the family cannot afford the domestic, something of a disgrace to her nosey neighbors) while Gabriele (Mastroianni) a scorned journalist, awaits a dire fate thanks to his removal from the Fascist party due to his sexual orientation. Fate brings them together via casual interaction, but inadvertently, they spend the day together, though they are of opposing opinion on many subjects.
For many years, A Special Day was largely unavailable, save for a horrendous DVD transfer circulated in 2007. Now available as it was meant to be seen, the title has undergone a remarkable transformation, and with Pasqualino De Santis’ striking cinematography completely restored to its former glory, one finds an utterly striking and unique piece of cinema.
A desaturated palette, almost akin to fading jaundice, its closest comparison would perhaps be The Wizard of Oz, before we’re consumed by Harold Rossen’s Technicolor extravaganza. Like picking up a tattered, yellowed newspaper, the fateful meeting of four entities grants the film simultaneous layers as macro and microcosmic. Fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini welcomes Germany’s Nazi tyrant Adolf Hitler into the country with open arms on the eve of WWII while a besotted housewife shamefully must stay at home to clean after her brood in a cramped apartment, by chance meeting a disgraced homosexual across the courtyard. It’s no mistake that Scola, co-writing with Dino Risi’s regular scribe Ruggero Maccari, construct their meeting over an escaped mynah bird, a creature famed for its ability to mimic human language when shuttered into captivity with them. Loren’s Antoinetta is just like this exotic bird, parroting political rhetoric, a willing victim to the social mores of her neighbors, and passively accepting of her domineering and abusive husband (played by famed Canadian character actor John Vernon).
But Scola begins with over eight minutes of newsreel footage, which positions us with a bit of off-kilter subversiveness, an embarrassing artifact of Italy’s acquiesce and complicity with the Nazis. Amusingly, the newscaster goes on and on, describing a gathering of legionnaires as they sing a “hymn full of virile tenderness.” Scola segues from this footage with a swastika, one of many draped over everything, including the courtyard of the complex where the main characters reside. De Santis’ pronounced look makes these swaths of red brocade appear like splotches of dried, brown blood.
We can feel Atoinetta’s weariness almost immediately, navigating her bustling, cramped household and careening between uncontrollable issues, from her husband’s irritable chastisement, to teen smoking in the solo bathroom, to discovering an elder son’s masturbatory material (given to him by dad, no less). It’s no wonder she seems relieved to be alone a moment, conversing with Rosamunda, the mynah bird who pays its owner as much mind as the children. But she doesn’t have much else to talk about when spoken to, proudly boasting her family is currently only one child short of the government requirement (a whopping seven) for assistance.
Her union with Mastroianni’s shamed journalist, who we learn is suffering from his own emotional demons, saying goodbye to a man we assume to be an ex-lover over the telephone, confesses to dark fantasies of his own, dramatic fantasies waylaid by the surprise visit of his neighbor. Their conversations result in a complicated dance of fluctuating power plays, each of them divulging weaknesses, such as his status as a social pariah to her sexual dissatisfaction in a loveless marriage. Scola literally gets them between the sheets, up on the rooftop amidst the billowing drapes of drying clothes, centered, for a moment, as equals on screen.
Notably, A Special Day picked up a Best Restored Film accolade at the 2014 Venice Film Festival. Scola supervised this restored 4K digital transfer, and it certainly is one of Criterion’s most notable recuperations. Presented in 1.85:1, the film looks absolutely pristine, it’s striking cinematography managing a displaced feel, a late 70s production set forty years beforehand yet characteristic of something made in the present. Criterion includes a stockpile of notable extra features.
Not to be missed, a 2014 short film directed by Edoardo Ponti (son of Loren) finds the esteemed actress performing in Cocteau’s famed play (of which previous versions starring the likes of Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman exist).
Ettore Scola Interview:
Criterion’s interview with the auteur from May, 2015 was filmed in Rome as he discusses his career and the origination of the character Gabriele.
Sophia Loren Interview:
Filmed in June, 2015 in Geneva, this Criterion interview with Sophia Loren finds the star recalling her memories of working with Scola on the film, as well as her reservations about playing Antoinetta and shooting the film’s significant love scene.
The Dick Cavett Show:
Loren and Mastroianni had famously made several films together. While promoting A Special Day New York, they recorded an hour long interview with Dick Cavett for his PBS program, shown in two half hour segments on October 10th and November 4th of 1977.
Fans of Italian icons Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren should cherish the opportunity to see Ettore Scola’s beautiful title as it’s resplendently presented here.
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆