Friday, February 19, 2016

#778: A Special Day

(Ettore Scola, 1977)

Don't read a goddamn thing about this movie before you see it.

A Special Day is a stunningly beautiful movie starring two stunningly beautiful people. The cover Criterion chose for the film is accurate, but it's also a bit misleading. This is not a Sirkian melodrama or a doomed romance - although in some ways it stands in for these subgenres. It's not a movie about Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni - although you never forget these are the people you are watching. It's not even a sepia-toned period piece about the faded nostalgia of misremembered good old days - though again, the film's cinematography is unique and sumptuous.

This is a movie about Italy. I've mentioned briefly before the country's unwillingness to confront its complicity with Nazi Germany, but Rome, Open City was about much more than that, whereas A Special Day confronts this issue head-on. By 1977, Italy had been celebrating Liberation Day, a remarkable national agreement to present its history as a sunny lie, for 30 years. It's still intense in America in 2016 to see the six minutes that open this film in which Italy welcomes Hitler and the Nazi leadership into Rome, but to Italians in the late 70s it must have been a slap in the face. It's especially remarkable considering the fact that Scola was one of the most significant comedic filmmakers of his generation (though by this point he had turned to outright political drama) and these are arguably the two biggest stars in Italian cinema history. Yet here is a film that begins with documentary footage using contemporary broadcasts describing the jubilation upon Hitler's welcome, with little more than some credits beforehand to assure viewers they were at the right theater.

This theme is not just established at the beginning and then forgotten as the personal drama plays out - a loud radio playing the parade along with planes flying overhead keeps the pressure of the impending war pressing down on the couple throughout the film. It's hard as an American to understand what this means or would feel like to most viewers of the movie, people who were either alive during the time the film was set or were raised by people who lived their prime during the time.

The story between the two leads is radical as well, particularly Mastroianni's sexuality. There have been some objections to the couple's consummation of their relationship considering his sexual orientation, but I think the film handles it in a very moving and respectful way. The emotional connection between the two characters is earned, and even though the film often dips into melodrama, it has enough nuance and complexity to avoid falling off the deep end.

I really loved A Special Day and think this is a great choice from Criterion. Although the cast alone would be enough to make it a no-brainer in the Collection, the cinematography and vital take on the politics of Italy in both the 1930s and 1970s is what elevates it to an essential release.

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