One of precious few Italian films to deal with the pre-war Fascist period, and most especially with the acme of Mussolini’s popularity, Ettore Scola’s Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day) takes place entirely within the confines of a tenement complex known as Palazzo Federici in Rome. Watching the film again during the week of Scola’s death in late January, and being familiar with the story, I find that my attention is drawn not to the characters but to the buildings themselves. For instance, I ask myself if the wonderful empty fountain that the children run around in the opening scenes, its shape resembling that of an Olympic arena, was purpose-built for the film, seeing as it represents so perfectly the indoctrination of Italians of all classes from a very young age into the symbols and discipline of the regime. But of course the complex is extensively documented on the internet and I quickly discover that no, it wasn’t. As a matter of fact it’s still there.
And here it was in 1977, while the film was being shot.
Designed by Mario De Renzi and completed in 1937, Palazzo Federici comprises over 400 dwellings accessed via 29 glass-covered external stairwells facing the internal yards. This gives it a remarkable functional resemblance to Bentham’s Panopticon, that is to say a structure in which everyone – and not just the film’s closest thing to a villain, the building’s caretaker – gets to spy on everybody else. Like an Italian Rear Window in which everyone gets to play James Stewart’s character at once.
This Fascist architecture in more than just the name, I realise now, is the film’s real protagonist, the mirror to a society that will not accommodate difference, much less dissent. At least not on ordinary days. Today, however, is a giornata particolare, meaning a day that is not like the others. Today is May 6, 1938, the day when Romans of all ages will get together to celebrate the visiting Adolf Hitler and his host, their Duce. Palazzo Federici will empty out of men and boys dressed in black and girls and women dressed in black and white, a festive crowd in martial, funereal colours.
Not Antonietta and Gabriele, however. She, a housewife and mother of six who would love nothing better than to join in the celebrations but has to clean the house and get it ready for the return of her family; he, a former state radio announcer, recently suspended for being a homosexual and now waiting for the secret police officers who will take him to his domestic exile in Sardinia, for every homosexual is a potential subversive. The two of them meet by chance in the maze-like building, leading to an intense and complicated relationship, asymmetric in almost every aspect – including the flow of sexual desire – but in which are both intensely invested, if only for a few hours.
She will be the last person he meets as a free man. He, perhaps the first man neither aspiring to nor incarnating the model image of the Fascist male she has encountered as an adult woman. Her hasty passion for him is misplaced, unrequited. His interest in her is a mix of fascination and horror, as he thumbs through her album full of clippings of Mussolini and listens to the tale of that time he cast a glance at her while riding through the city, and she fainted right there on the spot and had to be helped to the nearest tram stop.
Antonietta and Gabriele are played by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, two sex symbols lending this not quite sexless but nonetheless very unglamorous story a touch of structural irony. These are the very last people between whom a contemporary audience might have expected a lack of spark, yet watching the film today it doesn’t seem a distraction. Chased in every room and in their few intimate moments by the sounds of the parade coverage blaring from the caretaker’s radio below, Antonietta/Loren and Gabriele/Mastroianni barely have time to confess to each other what it is that makes them so lonely and ill-adjusted before the special day is over. The tenement fills up again, and its role of enforcing normalcy – temporarily filled by the lone figure of the caretaker in the intervening hours – is restored.
Taken to the particular extremes that Fascism demanded, this normalcy was an adherence to the most stifling and oppressing of social codes. But while the film provides a forthright and honest slice of domestic life under Mussolini, its lack of truly dissenting figures – not even Gabriele is an anti-fascist: as he puts it, it’s Fascism that is against him – and of a comforting ending prevent us from viewing Fascism in turn as an abnormal moment, an uncharted deviation along the course of Italian history.
Even as the country, eight decades later, struggles to pass a bill recognising not marriage equality but merely a timid, fraught version of civil unions, we are reminded of the many continuities, as I am when I look online at the pictures of the magnificent Palazzo Federici: a housing project designed for the poor to live in dignity, yet bearing not just the aesthetic signature but the very design of totalitarianism.
A Special Day is a gem of a film, unquestionably Scola’s masterpiece as well as a personal favourite. It stands almost alone in accounting for one of the most shameful pages of Italian history, plus Loren and Mastroianni are magnificent, but this is not why it still demands to be seen. It’s simply a film that continues to speak.