A Special Day
Italian cinema dream team Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni are cast against glamorous type and deliver two of the finest performances of their careers in this moving, quietly subversive drama from Ettore Scola. Though it’s set in Rome on the historic day in 1938 when Benito Mussolini and the city first rolled out the red carpet for Adolf Hitler, the film takes place entirely in a working-class apartment building, where an unexpected friendship blossoms between a pair of people who haven’t joined the festivities: a conservative housewife and mother tending to her domestic duties and a liberal radio broadcaster awaiting deportation. Scola paints an exquisite portrait in muted tones, a story of two individuals helpless in the face of Fascism’s rise.
Ettore Scola’s A Special Day makes its Blu-ray debut in North America through Criterion, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. This new high-definition 1080p/24hz presentation comes from a new 4K scan of the original 35mm negative.
The film has a very interesting look to it, layering a sepia tint over the entire image, though a few colours, specifically green and red (best shown in the Italian and German Nazi flags that appear throughout) do burst through. This is my first time seeing the film so can’t say if this is accurate but reading about it and looking at clips I can find this is at least the looks Scola was going for. I am going to take a guess that Scola probably did have the restoration team tinker with it digitally, as the reds and greens, which are specifically targeted in a few places (those flags in particular), pop out a little too much under the sepia tint. If this is the case, though, I’m absolutely fine with it because I suspect this is the look Scola has wanted but was limited by technology at the time.
My only real issue with the presentation is that blacks do look crushed in places. Some low lit sequences have black levels that look a little washed out and the details get muddied up a bit, probably worsened a bit by the darker browns of the sepia tint. But outside of these scenes I was quite happy with the presentation otherwise. Detail is staggering throughout the film and there’s still a decent sense of depth to the sequences, specifically in the courtyard. Darker scenes can also look a little noisy in places but the brighter scenes look clean and natural, with film grain coming off fairly well.
The restoration work has been incredibly thorough as well. Outside some stock footage the main feature is very clean and I can’t recall a blemish ever popping up. Ultimately the film looks as though it could have been filmed yesterday.
The lossless Italian PCM 1.0 mono track doesn’t really show off but for the age of the film it sounds very good, with fairly strong depth and clarity. Fidelity and range are also fairly good, and the restoration work has cleaned up damage. It sounds surprisingly good.
Criterion loads on a number of supplements here, starting with a couple of great interviews. The first one is with director Ettore Scola (who just recently passed away, with me getting to this disc rather late, unfortunately). Here Scola gives a brief history of his career, beginning at the same magazine that Federico Fellini had worked at, Marc'Aurelio to writing Il sorpasso and then his directing jobs that would lead up to A Special Day. Here he talks about casting Loren and working with her, finding the perfect location, and why he chose to shoot the film in the colour scheme he did.
It’s a wonderful interview, but must admit I was probably more floored by the very honest one that actor Sophia Loren gives here. She really gets into her insecurities here, admitting that she was afraid of doing the film, despite being able to relate to the character, because it would depend less on her sex appeal in comparison to other films before. I think the experience at first was too much, the first week of filming sounding to have been rather harsh on her, and she found Scola difficult to work with at first, but thankfully Mastroianni, a good friend, made things all the more easier and she finally found her groove, and believes this film features her best work. She also talks about the short film she made with her son, Human Voice, which appears on this disc. It’s a great interview that feels packed despite the fairly short 14-minute runtime.
Criterion also includes two 30-minute episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, featuring Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, there to promote the film. Criterion digging up this stuff has been great (I was especially fond of the interview Cavett conducted with Godard that Criterion used for their release of Every Man for Himself) and this one is no different. Loren, who is very fluent in English, sort of takes the reigns, and, despite Cavett really being stuck on her looks and seeming to sometimes focus too much on that, she manages to shift the focus on her work, as well as Mastroianni’s, and their work together in particular, as well as her views on acting. I felt sort of bad for Mastroianni, whose English is very rough, so he adds what he can, though sometimes I feel things were getting lost in translation. Thankfully Loren is there to help. It’s a great interview on the whole, allowing us to get a more personal look at the two acting icons, and it’s surprisingly laid back, easy going, and at times quite funny.
The most interesting feature on here, though, is the 2014 short film Human Voice, starring Loren and directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. It actually has nothing to do with the feature film (at least, as far as I can tell) other than the fact it stars Loren, though I was pleased it’s been made available here. Based on a stage play by Jean Cocteau it features Loren as an older woman talking on the phone with her former lover who is leaving her for another woman. We only get her side of the conversation, with the only other character to receive any real screen time being the maid (we get glimpses of the “signore” and the other woman in flash backs), giving the film a fairly stagey feel, which Ponti tries to alleviate with the flash backs, a couple of moments of levity, and some sweeping camera shots. What ultimately saves it, though, is Loren, who gives a wonderful performance as a person fearing this will be their last love. Again, it doesn’t directly relate to the main feature (other than its star) but it’s a rather thoughtful inclusion.
The disc then closes with the feature’s theatrical trailer, and the insert features a nice essay on the film by Deborah Young. Unfortunately it’s the only scholarly input for the release, but she nicely covers the film, going over the film’s presentation of Italian fascism, the characters, the performances, and so on.
Still, despite the lack of a more scholarly slant, Criterion has put together a nice set of features with the interviews and the short film, all of them worth going through.
I usually don’t comment on the films but I was so taken with this one. I had never seen it before, and admittedly I don’t even know if I had heard of it before, but it is an absolutely beautiful film with two amazing performances from its leads. There are so many wonderful and heartbreaking moments in it, and I’m glad Criterion has pretty much saved it for North American audiences. They give is a rather top-notch Blu-ray release and it comes with a very hearty recommendation.