Tuesday 5 November 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 60. A Special Day

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare)
Director – Ettore Scola
Country - Italy
Year - 1977
Runtime - 110 Minutes

On May 8th, 1938, Hitler visited Rome to meet with Mussolini and strengthen the union between Germany and Italy as the rise of fascism was taking hold of many parts of Europe. This was a special day for Italy and the residents of Rome who attended a magnificent parade that served to swell the ever-burgeoning national pride in the movement. For housewife and mother of six, Antonietta (Sophia Loren), this day would prove to be an eye-opening experience - but not for the reasons we may expect.

After rousing her family from their slumber and sending them off to watch the parade, Antonietta remains at home to work on a never-ending barrage of chores whilst listening to the day's events on the radio. In a brief moment of carelessness Antonietta leaves their pet bird's cage open and it flutters out of a window into the apartment building's central courtyard. She enlists the help of a neighbour, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni) - who seems to be one of the only other people not at the parade - to assist in the bird’s rescue. The two down beaten strangers find solace in each other's company and spend most of this unforgettable day deliberating over their current stations in life.

Ettore Scola's politically charged drama offers a scathing social critique on the popular stance of the era it depicts through the amicable clash of two people with opposing views. Both Gabriele and Antonietta are portrayed as warm and tender individuals who share an instant connection, but this friendship is tested when discussions turn to their perspectives on the current state of their beloved Italy. Antonietta is the wife of a proud fascist and although on the surface she appears apolitical, she takes an interest in her husband's passion, creating scrap books filled with newspaper cuttings about the political movement. When Gabriele peruses one of these books we learn that he is a staunch opposer of the fascist regime, for personal reasons he is reluctant to disclose, and it transpires that this outlook is one of the reasons why Gabriele lost his job as a popular and successful radio presenter.

As their conversations meander from friendly to flirtatious interactions, and then to a revelatory expose on Italy's state of affairs, we are drawn into the fascinating lives of Antonietta and Gabriele. You can sense the longing for companionship from both characters; each have been pushed to one side due to the proliferation of a dangerous political movement and they have this in common, even if other aspects of their views are misaligned. This simple premise of revealing dialogues shared between two strangers is highly engaging due to the exceptional performances from Loren and Mastroianni. Loren imbues her lonely housewife with a worn-down sadness that makes Antonietta's desire for romance understandable. Her lustful thoughts over Gabriele appear to be unreciprocated, as Mastroianni instills his character with a mysteriousness that arouses Antonietta's senses, but not her suspicions.

The only music we hear throughout the film is that which is played over the radio. The pomp and circumstance of the fascist parade gives rise to the steady beat of marching drums and triumphant choruses as the roar of the crowd increases and drowns out the instruments. This aural backdrop to the blossoming relationship shared by our two protagonists intersects their interchanges as it comes into focus during the day's defining movements. The contrast between the ominous event, which is enrapturing Italians everywhere, and the small-scale exchanges that transfix our attention couldn't be more pronounced. This amalgamation of the two scenarios is a striking approach to storytelling that enhances the impact of the union between these two lonely souls.

Both the story and the impressive camerawork remain confined within the grounds of the apartment building, but Scola makes great use of this location; shooting the action in the stairwells, the central courtyard, and even on the roof, to prevent his picture from remaining static. His composition and framing consider the prominent architecture of the enclosed setting whilst also making the audience feel like a fly on the wall as the day's events unfold. We are invited into the lives of these fascinating characters even if it seems to be an intrusion into an intimate and personal space that we sense should be kept in privacy behind locked doors.

A Special Day offers an invaluable insight into the lives of two people affected by the rise of fascism and acts as a revealing time capsule of the cultural zeitgeist of 1930s Italy in the build-up to World War Two. Its stirring drama plays out in a manner so as not to distance those who are uninterested in the politics of the era, as the story can be taken at face value for the hopeful romantic interlude it recounts between Gabriele and Antonietta. However, those wishing to delve into the societal subtext of this suggestive screenplay will surely revel in its intricate deconstruction of the outlandish attitudes that were shared by the populace at large during this period in history. The prevalence of this prejudiced viewpoint is a notion that is explored by Gabriele as he attempts to challenge Antonietta's perspective during the fateful day of Hitler's visit, which is fitting both historically and thematically as a backdrop for their enchanting and enlightening discourse. A Special Day is a mesmerising tale of liberation and, conversely, repression, that remains a landmark Italian film for reasons both of cultural importance and for fanning dreams of escapism borne from chance encounters that have a profound impact on the lives of those involved.

If you take the time to watch A Special Day then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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