A Special Day is a direct reframing of history. We begin with archival footage of the day Hitler came to Italy. The soundscape is full, yet straightforward, and the high contrast, almost sepia-toned, uncomplicated Italian and German characters march around the screen. Then we enter a crane shot, similar to the austere establishing shots in Dekalog, of the building where we’ll spend the rest of the film. The color scheme is similar but different now, almost like the sun is black. We glide into Sophia Loren’s Antonietta’s Jeanne Dielman existence through the window. She prepares her children and husband for Hitler’s arrival parade and tells them to tell her all about it when they return home; her voice hints at aggravation, as expected of a mother with that many young children, but her downcast eyes tell of a more complicated inner turmoil. Antonietta turns on the radio to hear about the grand events of the day—actually, she may not turn it on, the radio’s broadcast is so ubiquitous throughout the rest of the film that it’s as if it is always on. Fascism’s only way of maintaining itself is if it is always on, constantly presenting its false goods. But Antonietta is certainly not always on; as she begins her long cleaning duties for the day, she picks up a comic book off the floor—we enter a close-up, possibly our first close-up and Antonietta’s first sign of weakness, and she falls asleep. Abruptly, she is awoken by the family’s myna bird, the device that will connect Antonietta with our second character, Marcello Mastroianni’s Gabriele. They meet out of necessity; Antonietta can’t lose the family pet. A Special Dayhenceforth plays as a character drama as Antonietta and Gabriele are propelled through a series of confrontations with their preoccupations and inhibitions until they meet in the middle.
It’s absolutely engrossing when Antonietta and Gabriele interact with each other, when they dance the rumba, make coffee, fight on the roof. The radio program of the major historical event happening outside are thrown far from interest. Most of the broadcast is subtitled, but you find yourself rarely reading it. It’s just a piece of the background noise in Antonietta and Gabriele’s complex emotional world. The beginning archival footage is all contrast with the proceeding film; the uninspired enormous scale versus the intimate, the loud and blunt sound design versus the quiet yet full, the mass of undeveloped characters versus the intensely compelling two. A Special Day sets itself right in the middle of world-shaping events but finds that the story next door is a lot more interesting.