Monday, July 05, 2021

On Ettore Scola's "A Special Day"

Ettore Scola's "A Special Day" features an enthralling camera shot that does a lot more than map out the geographical terrain of the film's two central characters. It also establishes that Scola is deadly serious about making a statement on the serpentine nature of the historical and the personal colliding at the same time. The aforementioned shot happens early in the film after an introductory newsreel footage that shows Hitler and his Third Reich parading into Italy to meet Benito Mussolini and forge a relationship that would last until the end of World War II.  The camera begins in the courtyard of a tall apartment building complex, spinning upwards to reveal the concrete and windows that almost block out the sun before carefully panning across a row of windows and doors, finally settling on an illuminated opening where a woman (Sophia Loren) goes about her early morning chores in the kitchen. As we watch her dutifully wiping dishes and occasionally brushing the hair from her eyes, the camera glides into the apartment through the open window and proceeds to follow the woman around as she gets her children moving and wakes her husband (American actor John Vernon in a small role). This unbroken shot is not only a technical marvel for the way it slices through seemingly immovable objects, but reveals a typical woman in Italian society who will become irrevocably changed at the end of the picture.

Taking place over the course of just one day, "A Special Day" soon dispenses with every other character as they disappear into the streets to wave and cheer Hitler and Mussolini. The apartment building is empty, except for a solitary man working in his apartment directly across from Loren's view. When her pet bird escapes his cage and flies to his windowsill, the man (Marcello Mastroianni) and woman meet, talk, flirt and exchange ideas about the maelstrom of history swirling around them. While she chose not to go because she simply doesn't care about Italy's political strategy, he can't go anywhere for reasons that will become crushingly obvious before the end.

Loren and Mastroianni, who've been paired so many times before, have a casual elegance about them as they come together and fall apart, their dialogue rolling between them with the ease of professionalism both continually exhibit in all their work. Mastroianni, especially, is tasked with a conflicted character, at once attracted to Loren for her ideals and then forced to confront emotions that are hidden behind his true self.... emotions that have him writing with one hand and keeping a pistol close by with the other. And Loren, in the final image as she watches something across the courtyard, gives a full performance that suggests an alternate life would suit her perfectly.

It's not ironic that these two people meet and share each other's company on such a unique day. The film is a coded example of two people finding and accepting one another in a world increasingly redolent of tolerance and unity. That they ultimately can't live together happily ever after is the biggest tragedy of them all.


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