A SPECIAL DAY. Gold Film, Italy, 1977, as Una giornata particolare. Cinema 5, US, 1977 (subtitled). Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, John Vernon, Françoise Berd, Patrizia Basso, Tiziano De Persio. Director: Ettore Scola.

   A Special Day is a very quiet film. It’s a film stripped down to its bare essentials. Two lead actors, one primary location, and a story that unfolds through dialogue. There’s not a lot of music and no special effects. And for the most part, this Golden Globe winner works in accomplishing what it sets out to do: to tell the story of two ordinary people trying to live authentically under the oppressive force of Italian fascism.

   Filmed in a quasi-sepia tone, where the only notable colors are those of the Nazi and fascist flags, A Special Day isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a captivating one due in large part to its cinematography, direction, and its two legendary stars: Sophia Loren and Marco Mastroianni. The entire movie takes place on May 8, 1938, the day when Adolf Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome to solidify the alliance between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was a day of military parades and fascist spectacle.

   Loren portrays Antonietta, a bored, listless Roman housewife with a husband (John Vernon) who doesn’t respect her and cheats on her with prostitutes. When she is left alone in the family apartment after everyone else goes to the parade for Hitler and Mussolini, a chance encounter leads her into the life of her quirky neighbor Gabriele (Mastroianni). He has decided not to attend the parade either.

   As the story progresses, it turns out that both of them are suffering from extreme loneliness and that both have been living a lie. Antonietta is suffocating in her unhappy marriage and is not quite as enthusiastic for the fascist movement as she has publicly portrayed herself to be. And Gabriele has been removed from his position as a radio broadcaster for his homosexuality.

   SPOILER ALERT! What the viewer doesn’t learn until the very end is that this is a “special” day for Gabriele in that he knows that evening he will be arrested and deported to an internment camp for his anti-fascist views and his homosexuality.

   The story works best when it’s focused on the individual characters and their quirks and how their chance encounter changes the both of them. Little things such as Antonietta’s shame that she isn’t formally educated or Gabriele’s desire to learn the rumba give depth to their identities. There are some quite funny moments as well.

   What doesn’t work as well is the film’s desire to deliver a message to the audience. Sometimes subtlety works better than hammering home a message that could have been delivered without some of the less believable moments, such as when Gabriele all but assaults Antonietta after she slaps him once he spurns her romantic advances.

   And although the viewer sees Loren and Mastroianni, the film is supposed to be the story of a chance encounter between a conservative Italian housewife and an urbane, intellectual. Would these distinct personalities really bond in the emotional manner that they ultimately do in the film? Or is it pure theater and spectacle, a cinematic counterpart to the fascist narrative?

   A Special Day works wonderfully in capturing the mood of how oppressive fascist Italy was for nonconformists, but does it in a manner that occasionally feels too forced and too reliant on its two leads to propel the movie forward when the script runs out of steam, which occurs after about an hour. But what two leads!