Thursday, 8 October 2015

A SPECIAL DAY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Italian Kitchen-Sink Love Story now on Criterion

A gay dissident. An overworked housewife.
Can happiness, no matter how brief, be far behind?
A Special Day (1977)
Dir. Ettore Scola
Starring: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, John Vernon, Françoise Berd

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Writing about A Special Day is a somewhat bittersweet experience for me. Until watching the gorgeously transferred Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, I hadn't laid eyes upon the picture since 1977 when I saw it first-run on a big screen.

I saw it with my late mother. She loved Sophia Loren and was really looking forward to the movie. It didn't disappoint. It became one of her favourite movies. From time to time she'd mention it agreeably, almost wistfully. I offered, on several occasions, to get it on home video for her, but she always declined. She wasn't one to see movies more than once, even if she loved them. (Her exception to this rule was Gone With The Wind.)

For me, I recall enjoying it well enough in 1977, but I was eventually swayed by Pauline Kael's hilarious pan in The New Yorker. She referred to it as "a strenuous exercise in sensitivity" and described director Ettore Scola's style as "genteel shamelessness". In spite of my Kael-influenced position on the picture, I always maintained a positive stance whenever my mother brought it up. I tried not being a pretentious smart-ass with her.

Seeing it again, I marvelled at what an exquisitely crafted love story it really is. Yes, the picture wears its emotions on its sleeve and the political backdrop now seems somewhat obvious in how it front loads the love story which transpires twixt Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. But, on this viewing, none of these almost-machine-tooled elements mattered to me. I appreciated Scola's genuine artistry and the film's obvious merits as a first-rate weepy.

All through this screening, though, I couldn't help but think about my Mom.

I think this is a valid critical response to the film. Good movies almost always hit one on a personal level and what I admired, beyond reflecting upon my late Mother's love for it, is what a superb star vehicle it was for its leads and how the film must have resonated with audiences all over the world - especially all those Moms who related to the character Loren played so exquisitely.

The kitchen sink, laundry and Hitler
are powerless against two lonely people
finding happiness, no matter how brief.
Sophia is cast against type as Antonietta, a traditional housewife living in poverty with her brutish husband (John Vernon) and slaving over her six kids (of all ages) whilst living a life of drudgery and servitude - cooking and cleaning ad infinitum. Of course, like star vehicles the world over, Sophia's not really cast against type in the sense that she's the most gorgeous drudge in the history of movies - even without makeup. Why should it be any other way? I imagine my own Mother seeing aspects of herself in the film, but being able to do so with Sophia Loren standing up on the silver screen in her stead.

As the title tells us, the film is set during that very special day in 1938 when Adolph Hitler came to Rome in order to celebrate Totalitarian collaboration with Benito Mussolini. Loudspeakers have been set up in every nook and cranny of the city to broadcast the events of the day, even though virtually every home and business has been drained of humanity to fill the streets for Hitler.

Antonietta is home alone. There's plenty of wifely duties for her to perform - Hitler or no Hitler. When her mynah bird escapes its cage and flies across the courtyard, it lands at the window of Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni). With his help, the bird is rescued. Alas, all this activity has interrupted Gabriele's plans to commit suicide.

I'd assert that this might be the ultimate meet-cute.

In any event, we discover Gabriele is a former household name - a radio commentator who has been fired for his liberal views and who will, no doubt, be carried off by the Black Shirt Police to rot in prison. Antonietta is charmed off her feet by the dapper intellectual. He treats her with respect and encourages her to find time to exercise her mind with reading books. He's also a homosexual. This doesn't phase Antonietta. She's bound and determined to seduce him.

This is a special day in more ways than one. Two sad, lonely people make a connection. Come what may, for several hours they discover some glimmer of happiness in their momentary closeness. Though director Scola has visually etched a borderline neorealist world, he eventually builds to a fifty-hanky tear gusher. There's no mistaking that A Special Day is anything other than what it is; a touching, sentimental, gorgeously-wrought melodrama.

And yeah, I did shed more than a few tears on this go-round. I acknowledge many of them were probably in memory of my late Mom, but I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that the skillful manner in which the film wrenches emotion also worked its magic upon me. It's the same magic that worked on my Mom, sitting in a movie theatre on a Sunday afternoon with her teenage son some thirty eight years ago.

I suspect the picture will move whole new generations of movie lovers, thanks to the painstaking restoration efforts of Criterion. Like any well crafted love story, Scola did indeed create a picture of lasting value.


A Special Day is available on the Criterion Collection with to-die-for supplements including: a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Ettore Scola, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray; Human Voice, a 2014 short film starring Sophia Loren and directed by Edoardo Ponti; new interviews with Scola and Loren; two 1977 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Loren and actor Marcello Mastroianni (a mega-treat); the trailer; a new English subtitle translation; and an essay by critic Deborah Young.