Film Review: A SPECIAL DAY, 1977

Tribute review for Sophia Loren, born today at September 20th. 

Movie Reviews

Directed by: Ettore Scola

Starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastrioanni, John Vernon,

Review by Leslie McMurtry


It’s a very special day in 1939—the day Hitler first visits Mussolini in Rome. The event has been marked by a massive Fascist party rally and parade, drawing everyone in the city. An entire tenement block leaves for the parade, except housewife Antonietta and unemployed radio announcer Gabriele. A chance meeting causes the pair to return to each other’s company over and over during the day and in the space of a few short hours, they have formed a very close and ultimately redemptive bond.


Archival footage shows the arrival of Hitler and his highest-ranking Nazi cohorts by train and Mussolini’s Fascist army meeting and greeting them in Rome. A radio announcer gives full details of the historic event while giant swastikas float in the breeze, the streets choked with spectators. The announcer says that the Fascist forces are there in preparation for the next day, when an even bigger event will take place.

Daylight dawns over a tenement block in central Rome. The date is May 8, 1939—the day after the one the archival footage presented and the day of a huge Fascist party rally and parade. Pauletta (Françoise Berd), the caretaker of the block of flats, unveils a huge Nazi flag next to the Italian flag. In one of the flats, long-suffering mother and housewife Antonietta (Sophia Loren) goes from room to room, waking up all six of her children as well as her husband, Emanuele (John Vernon). It is nearly six, and if any of them are late for the rally, she doesn’t want them to complain to her. A flurry of activity results as the children, from little boy Vittorio to Antonietta’s surly and spoiled daughters Maria Luisa (Alessandra Mussolini) and Romana (Patricia Bazzo). Antonietta angrily discovers dirty pictures in the bed of Fabio (Maurizio Del Paoloantonio), but when she scolds him, he says that his father gave them to him.

Emanuele is a fervent Party member and exhorts his children to their patriotic duty as they have breakfast. Emanuele clearly has no respect for Antonietta, calling her lazy even though she has clearly gotten up hours before dawn to prepare the rest of the family. As the family make a mass exodus, in patriotic costume and their best clothes, streaming out into the courtyard with all the other families, Emanuele wonders that Antonietta doesn’t go to the rally. She says she has too much work to do. At last, the entire tenement empties, and only Antonietta and the caretaker are left in the silent building.

Or so she thinks. Going about her chores as if in a dream, Antonietta is flung into action when the family mynah bird flies out the window and across the courtyard to the flat opposite. Antonietta tries to signal to the man in the flat (Marcello Mastroianni), but he isn’t paying attention. Inside the flat, we see he has stacks of papers surrounding him as well as a gun. The impression is made that he is about to shoot himself. Antonietta arrives and asks for his help to rescue the bird. He helps her to rescue the bird and is relieved at the interruption. The loudspeaker radio announcer detailing every detail of the rally can be heard through every moment of the next few hours. Antonietta wants to make a quick getaway back to the safety of her flat, but the man introduces himself as Gabriele. Antonietta notices his copy of The Three Musketeers, which she accidentally confuses with The Four Musketeers, an extremely popular Italian radio serial of the time. Gabriele asks her to take the book with her, but she declines and leaves.

Gabriele receives a phone call from “Marco,” who it soon becomes clear is his absent lover. They argue and hint at a future that looks very bleak. Gabriele goes soon after to Antonietta’s flat and gives her the book anyway. He asks her for a cup of coffee, and she begins the long laborious process of hand grinding he beans. She takes the opportunity to try to tidy up and at the same time improve her appearance (she is dressed in an old housedress and dressing gown). They are interrupted by the arrival of Pauletta, who mean-spiritedly warns Antonietta against Gabriele. Gabriele decides he should probably leave, but Antonietta convinces him to stay for his coffee. She finds out that he is a radio announcer who was recently fired. He looks at the albums dedicated to Mussolini that she has put together, and he is both impressed and saddened by her devotion to “Il Duce.” She notes that she has six children and if she has a seventh the family will be eligible for the Large Family subsidy; as a bachelor, Gabriele has to pay a Celibacy Tax.

Pauletta interferes once again, intimating that Gabriele is not to be trusted because he is an antifascist. She also says Antonietta’s washing on the roof is dry. Antonietta says that he is in the flat fixing a light. Gabriele fixes the light but is rebuffed by Antonietta. She goes up to the roof to get her washing, while Gabriele follows her, ostensibly to avoid meeting Pauletta on his way back to his flat. Up on the roof, Gabriele surprises Antonietta by wrapping her up in a sheet, allowing her to laugh for the first time all day. Then she grows angry, saying that “all you men are the same,” and implies that Gabriele has only been after her to have a casual affair. Gabriele admits to her that the reason he was fired from the radio station was because of “degenerate behavior.” Antonietta gradually realizes that he means he has been ostracized for being gay—or “queer,” as he calls it. Gabriele is hurt by Antonietta’s attitude since has just bared his soul to her, and grows angry, attacking her and pretending to assault her. He chases her down the stairs and shouts for the entire complex to hear. Will the two remain friends on this special day? Or will scandal and unhappiness result when Emanuele and the children return?

A Special Day (Una giornata particolare in Italian) was nominated for two Oscars and two Palme D’Ors. It was a joint production with Canadian production company Canafox, and several of the actors, including the superb John Vernon, were Canadian. Set in one location and following the Aristotelian conceits of drama, it takes place in 24 hours. Its backdrop story is a dramatic and ominous one—Mussolini and Hitler and the takeover of Fascism—but its main story is a quiet and relatively uneventful one. Still, it is a powerful drama beautifully filmed by Scola and acted by the two leads.

Sophia Loren seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to dull down her incredible good looks to exude Antonietta’s unhappiness. Trapped in a marriage to a cheating husband she doesn’t respect, her days filled endlessly with dreary chores, self-admittedly a woman of little education, she seems to go about in a perpetual cloud of exhaustion and tedium. We get this information, and the sense that her devotion to the Party and to radio are there because she has nothing else, mostly from the way Loren performs rather than the script. Mastroianni also beautifully underplays the erudition, the repression, and the extreme kindness at the heart of Gabriele’s character. For once in her life, Antonietta has found a man who doesn’t act like a man—that is, he cleans up after himself, he cooks, and he treats her as a human being rather than a housewife-robot. The two are trapped in different ways, and for that reason they create a unique bond that is touching to watch develop.

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