Ettore Scola’s “A Special Day”
September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
As an historian of fascist Italy, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (Una giornata particulare) has always held a special interest for me. The film is set during one of the massive rallies which marked the visit of Adolf Hitler to Mussolini’s Rome in May 1938. The story is a private drama played out against the backdrop of a great public event that marked a high point of fascist propaganda. It was a day in which Rome was adorned with swastikas and fasces and thousands of Romans turned out to witness the parade of military and party organizations. For one day at least, it appeared as if all of Rome was united behind its Duce in greeting the visitor from Germany.
The story revolves around two characters, Antonietta and Gabriele, neighbors in the same apartment complex but strangers until they meet accidentally on the day of the rally. She is an overworked housewife, mother of six children, and married to a dedicated fascist party official who takes her for granted. Although she has a devotion to Mussolini, Antonietta elects to stay home in order to catch up on her chores. Gabriele is a former radio broadcaster who was fired by the regime when it was discovered he was a homosexual. They are worlds apart but get to know each other during the course of the day when the rest of the building’s residents are at the rally. She doesn’t know about his sexuality and assumes that he is pursuing her. He, on the other hand, is simply waiting for the inevitable; a knock on the door from the Italian police who will take him to the confino or internal exile—the fate of those opposed to the regime or an embarrassment to it. Despite some incomprehension a close friendship and understanding develops between them. Scola’s point is to show how during the heyday of the fascist regime, when Mussolini attempted to create a totalitarian society, alternative private worlds continued to exist even amidst the triumphalism of the fascist era.
The film is remarkable for several reasons but there are three outstanding features that make it, in my opinion, a minor masterpiece. One is the characters and the actors who play them; the second is the use of archival footage and radio broadcasts; and the third is the location—an apartment complex in Rome built during the fascist era. The film stars Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, two actors who had already appeared in several films together and were indisputably Italy’s most famous film stars in the 1970s. As Peter Bondanella notes, Scola’s genius is to use both actors against type—Loren usually played a glamor girll and Mastroianni the quintessential Latin lover.1 In this film, Loren is a middle aged woman who wears shabby clothes and ripped stockings, while Mastroianni is a gay man. Both are brilliant and their performance alone is worth watching the film.
The second outstanding feature of the film is Scola’s skillful interweaving of archival film and radio broadcasts with the narrative. The first several minutes of the film are a collage of newsreel footage made by the LUCE Institute—the regime’s newsreel and documentary arm. Much of the story is played out against the backdrop of the radio broadcast of the events of that day which serve as a counterpoint to the drama between Antonietta and Gabriele. The radio is turned on by the building’s caretaker–an old crow who spies on the building’s residents. She appears to be the only other person in the building that day apart from the two main characters. She is the sinister face of the fascist regime and at one point gives Antonietta a warning about what happens to those who associate with men like Gabriele. It is her radio which, turned full volume, provides the other face of the regime—its triumphalism. Scola’s ability to interweave historical footage and the plot is brilliant and deserves a blog entry all its own.
Finally, there is the third—and most striking–element of the film which is the location: The Palazzo Federici. The entire film is set in this one location. Built between 1932 and 1937 the Palazzo Federici serves as an example of fascist monumentality in urban design. Designed by the modernist architect Mario De Renzi, it is composed of a series of tall residential blocks linked by elevated walkways, arches, and courtyards. The architect included a few futurist touches like the tubular, glass enclosed stairwells and elevator shafts which Scola makes much us of. The most prominent feature of the complex—and one that would figure prominently in the film—is the courtyard which makes the building a “piece of the city.”2 The complex was designed to express the “tumultuousness” of city life; it covered over 15,000 square meters, comprising 650 units including 100 shops and even a movie theater.3 Scola will use these features to make the building not only the location of the story, but also a protagonist in its own right. This is clearly demonstrated in the opening scenes of the film.
As the introductory sequence of newsreel footage ends, the film cuts to a shot of fascist banners being unfurled over the balustrade of one of the elevated walkways. Out of this comes Scola’s establishing shot, a pan of the residential towers which surround the courtyard. This shot is done in such a way that it demonstrates the sheer verticality of what was considering a small skyscraper in the context of 1930s Rome. It is clearly early morning and all the windows are dark. Gradually, the lights turn on in each unit. Scola’s camera pans along one floor of the building and we see through the windows as families begin to rise and prepare for the rally. It is a shot reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Eventually, the camera stops at one window and moves into the unit where we see Antonietta ironing fascist uniforms and preparing coffee.
In a sequence that Scola will use often throughout the film, we follow Antonietta through her labyrinthine apartment as she wakes up her six children and husband, Emanuele, played by Canadian actor Richard Vernon. The scene is chaotic as the family scrambles to get into their uniforms. It begins badly for Antonietta who chastises her daughter for putting on lipstick, finds a pornographic magazine in her son’s bed, and rows with her husband who gave that picture to his son. Scola’s tracking shots clearly bring out the claustrophobic atmosphere of the apartment which is too small for the large family. It is a maze of rooms and doors which seem to have no discernable floor plan. Everything seems to lead to the cramped and untidy kitchen. The apartment is disorienting, a reflection of the similarly mazelike building of which it is a part.
The scene then shifts to another striking sequence in Scola’s film—the emptying of the building as hundreds of men, women, and children spill out into the courtyard in their fascist uniforms on their way to the rally. It is a dynamic scene which makes effective use of De Renzi’s architecture especially the tubular, transparent stairwells and the walkways through the courtyard. The impression is that of a giant ant colony. As the crowds make their way to the street they are cheered on by the caretaker who is largely ignored.
Scola makes much of the two apartments which reveal the different worlds inhabited by Gabriele and Antonietta. When Antonietta’s mynah bird escapes from its cage and lands on Gabriele’s window ledge we enter his apartment. In contrast to Antonietta’s cramped living quarters, filled with family heirlooms and old furniture, Gabriele’s apartment is orderly and tidy with modern furniture and works of modern art on the walls. Scola will make much of one painting which hangs near the door and draws a puzzled look from Antonietta. Later on, Gabriele’s last act before being led out by the police to exile is to carefully wrap the painting and put it under his arm. On the floor of the apartment are laid out the footsteps for the rumba dance which Gabriele demonstrates to a clearly embarrassed Antonietta who becomes conscious of her frumpy dress and broken slippers.
In contrasting the apartments Scola is making a commentary on the broken lives left behind by fascist propaganda. Antonietta, as it turns out, is in a loveless marriage to a man who “knows only how to give orders.” She surrounds herself with the artifacts of domesticity—faded family pictures, diplomas, and hand me downs. The apartment also has its share of kitsch—souvenir albums of Mussolini and a portrait of the Duce made of buttons as well as vulgar fascist publications and cartoons. Gabriele, on the other hand, surrounds himself with culture—modern paintings, records, and stacks of books one of which, Dumas’ Three Muskateers, he gives to Antonietta who is barely literate. The impression though is of a sterile environment which provides little consolation.
Throughout the film, Scola will make use of the building’s features. Stairways, corridors, doors and windows are utilized abundantly. In one shot we see Gabriele making himself an omelet through one door, while Antonietta watches him through another. Most prominent of all is the courtyard which is almost always present through the large windows of the apartments. It is here that Scola reveals the truly fascist nature of the De Renzi building—it is designed for surveillance. In modernist architecture windows are used to represent lightness and transparency but here they are a means of obliterating the private world. As Gabriele and Antonietta become closer, they take steps to avoid this surveillance (especially from the caretaker who makes it clear that she has her eye on the pair). Rather than walk down the stairwell and through the courtyard, they begin to use the roof and the boiler room (where Antonietta bangs her head on a pipe). The courtyard clearly belongs to the regime—those who are outsiders are left to find their way through the alleys and tunnels of the building’s interior.
It is here that Scola’s brilliant use of the building is fully realized. The director is able to at once demonstrate both the fascist and anti-fascist potential of the Palazzo Federici and of modernist architecture in general—a style that can be both liberating and repressive at the same time. When the fascists return home, they are once again greeted by the caretaker, and once again they largely ignore her empty, bombastic exhortations. Antonietta, who has clearly been changed by her encounter with Gabriele now sees the courtyard in a different light. As night descends on the city, she is the only one who notices a lonely figure being escorted by two policemen through the courtyard and out the arched gate of the complex into exile.
-Dr. Paul Baxa
History Department, Ave Maria University
2 Alfredo Carlomagno and Giuseppe Saponaro, Mario De Renzi, 1897-1967 (Rome: Edizioni Clear, 1999), 29.