A Special Day (1977) with Loren & Mastroianni

a special day.jpgThe film opens with newsreel footage delivered to us in an undoctored format effectively presenting us a view into the past. It is the momentous (some would say fateful) day Adolf Hitler made his triumphant visit to see Benito Mussolini in Italy.

The year is 1938. And it has all the pomp, circumstance, military exhibitions, and blind nationalism one comes to expect with such historical depictions. Director-screenwriter Ettore Scola elects to give us the past instead of totally constructing a version of it. Because that is not what his film is about.

Even to consider Fellini’s farcical take on fascism in Amarcord, complete with swooning beauties and talking Mussolini faces in flowers, A Special Day couldn’t be more divergent. It works and operates in a much smaller more confined space, serving its purposes just fine. As the movie itself opens, we are immediately met with the most confounding of palettes — an ugly clay-colored hue — hardly the best for drawing on fond memories. In fact, it’s utterly unappealing.

This is not a criticism, mind you, because the pervading drabness is another calculated creative decision. What it provides is a very concrete articulation of the world. Furthermore, without committing to the broader context, Scola is able to focus his attentions on one building.

So yes, there is this huge cultural event with a gravitational pull dragging everyone out of the house in droves to celebrate with patriotic fervor. Everyone wants to see the Fuhrer and Il Duce for themselves. But this is all pretense, again, serving the smaller, more intimate scale of the film. It’s for the best.

Not totally unlike Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the housing complex becomes a limiting factor, but also a creative asset. The architecture and space evolve into something worth examining in itself. Within its confines, our two protagonists are thrown together thanks to an escaped myna bird. One is a long-suffering housewife (Sophia Loren) forced to stay at home while her family enjoys the festivities. She’s a middle-aged Cinderella with all the youthful beauty sucked out of her.

Her husband (an oddly cast and dubbed John Vernon) is an arrogant party supporter and all her six children are either brats or too young to know any better. Her station as a mother and wife feels totally underappreciated, even dismissed.

The other forgotten person she happens to meet is a radio broadcaster (Marcello Mastroianni), unwittingly diverting him from an attempt at suicide. Because the current regime has no place for subversive naysayers like him on the national airwaves.

There’s a questioning of whether or not there’s enough for a film to develop. Can it hold on and keep us on board for over an hour? Given everything so far, it’s a no-frills scenario. There’s not much to work with, and success in itself seems like a tall order. Thank goodness we have the likes of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The promise of having them together is a worthy proposition and in this case, it hardly disappoints.

If you’ve only seen them in their star-studded, glamorized roles, prepare to be astounded. Loren could never look completely dowdy, but there’s definitely something forlorn about her. She carries it off quite well. Likewise, Marcello, normally a suave fellow, still has his prevailing moments of charm, but he too is equally subtle.

At least in the case of Loren, it seems like Hollywood only ever saw her as a screen goddess with an accent, and thus cast her in roles catering to that predetermined persona. And yet in her native Italy, in a movie like Two Women (1961) or her in A Special Day, it’s as if they gave her the freedom and the trust to stretch herself and really prove who she was as a bona fide actress.

The little doses of magic they drum up together carry scenes and if you’ve ever seen any of their movies, the intuitive chemistry coursing between them is, by now, almost second nature. Dancing steps of the rhumba to the cutouts on the floor. For one single moment, a saucy tune drowns out the choruses of a fascist regime.

Later she tries to quickly style her hair in the bathroom as he bungles grinding the coffee and sweeps it under the rug like a sheepish schoolboy. Or he makes his valiant attempt at fixing the lamp over the kitchen table that always leaves Antonietta bumping her head. These are the lighter notes.

But if these are the distinct instances of near frivolity, then A Special Day is about so much more on a broader scale. It casts an eye on a society that deems women as totally auxiliary in both intelligence and importance.

Likewise, one is reminded about the institutionalized hatred including vitriolic prejudice against homosexuals. Where people have lost their image and are merely cogs in a political, faux-religion of the state. Not everyone fits in. Gabriele even exhibits a touch of mild insurrection to the state by not abstaining from using the banned “lei” instead of “voi” when addressing others, as the former was seen as too effeminate by Italy’s fearless leader.

If not totally radical, the relationship at the core of this movie feels countercultural, even as it probably taps into the basic longings of many. In some strange, miraculous way they understand one another, unlike anyone they ever have before.

It’s how the film is able to be an empathetic portrait of humanity. Never has it been more evident that understanding can exist anywhere and between anyone in the most unusual of circumstances. So by the time the day’s festivities are winding down and the crowds rumble back in, the two kindred souls part ways to their separate ends of the courtyard, and yet there’s no way not to think about one another.

Gabriele starts packing up to be shipped off and deported because Mussolini’s regime is no place for a man like him. Antonietta puts together dinner for her family — all the normal duties required of her — existing once more as the silent life force behind the entire household. Her mind can’t help but wander to the only person who seems to know her, just as one’s eyes can help but glance at the light he helped fix only hours before.

He takes one final survey of his apartment, his room goes dark, and he’s escorted out of the courtyard, quietly, without any fanfare. The wide void between their apartments has never felt greater. It is the antithesis of a Rear Window ending.

After a few moments of leafing through The Three Musketeers — the book he gifted her — she wanders off to bed and follows suit by turning out the light. Darkness overtaking the day in the never-ending rhythms of life.

If it wasn’t apparent already “a special day” is meant to elicit two connotations. The state would have you believe the sights of Hitler, Mussolini, and grand feats of military might are the type of memories you won’t soon forget. Perhaps they’re even worthy of telling your children about someday.

However, for others, “a special day” means something far more. It has to do with empathy and truly knowing someone and being known like you’ve never been known before. For isolated people in a callous and lonely world of monotone, it’s so much more than all the bells and whistles at a parade. In its own unassuming way, A Special Day is a heart-wrenching love story to the nth degree.

4/5 Stars

Arabesque (1966) with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren

arabesque 1.png

I was trying to recall if the actual word “arabesque” was ever uttered in the movie. Granted, in a narrative like this, it’s just as easy for something to fly over your head. There’s comparable lingo bandied about pertaining to ciphers and hieroglyphs, mentioned in the context of coded messages and bits of secret information. You can hardly have an international spy thriller without such prerequisites, and yet this isn’t the fun of it.

Nor is it a foreign prime minister’s plight or the dubious intentions of a peregrine falcon-loving mastermind who holds a ravishingly beautiful woman in house arrest (in all cases Middle Easterners are played by Westerners). Because for any such story, the lasting enjoyment comes in the road traveled and the people we get to follow along with through every twist and turn.

It’s the saving grace of Arabesque, a movie with an overhauled and doctored script tinkered on by many hands including Peter Stone (writer of the similar Charade and Mirage). All this work produced a simultaneously mind-boggling and messy plotline. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the particulars barely add up.

All that must be know is Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck) finds himself on the run from any number of villains, all with their own selfish, nefarious schemes to employ. At the center of this sinister web of mayhem is an alluring spy (Sophia Loren) who is constantly switching and shape-shifting under every given circumstance. Our protagonist doesn’t quite know what to do with her.

One might note Arabesque has another memorable shower scene after Charade’s. However, this rendition is decidedly more awkward and tense as Pollock finds himself under the hospitality of a sinister man, and Yasmin Azir (Loren) is under his watchful gaze as well. They wind up playing footsies with the soap in an effort not to raise suspicion.

arabesque 2.png

Arabesque tries to make it extremely evident all this peril is being thrust upon our heroes as they travel through the heart of Britain. It can be little more than a nod to The Master of Suspense to have our characters running through first a zoo and then a local aquarium, recalling the museum pieces in Blackmail (1929). There’s even an overt nod to North by Northwest, complete with cornfields, this time patrolled by deadly threshers instead of a crop duster.

Stanley Donen’s solution to the so-so storyline is to do just about anything he can to mix things up with kaleidoscope prism shots, angles through glass tables, reflections, unique framing, and on and on. In one sense, it is inventive, but there’s no unified purpose to it. It feels precisely like he’s trying to do whatever he can to distract from the material when it gets dull. Of course, the fact that this is the 1960s doesn’t hurt the aesthetic with enough drugs and hallucinations to pass the decade’s quotas.

In one particularly otherworldly vision, Peck becomes a hallucinogenic bullfighter on the motorways causing a major traffic jam. It adds little to the plot, but it certainly creates an impression. Still, I’m not sure if the merits of form over substance apply in this situation, even if Donen is ceaselessly creative. It gets to be almost too much. It could easily verge on out-and-out camp — considering the ludicrous nature of scenes — though it knuckles down when it matters most. An assassination plot must be averted, and it does offer a decent payoff in the thrills department.

Peck admittedly feels a bit miscast, although this could just as easily be my subconscious speaking since Cary Grant was earmarked for the role. Because one can imagine, even with his advanced years, Cary could have pulled off the wit marvelously. God love him, but Peck is almost too regal, and he has too much presence if that can possibly be an impediment. Sometimes it’s difficult to take him lightly. He does make an admirable go of it and the hint of Indy, an educator by trade, does not hurt his image.

Sophia Loren is absolutely scintillating carrying scenes with her usual poise owning every line and effortlessly building the needed chemistry with Peck, even as she sends him bouncing all over the place. He needs her for this picture to work, and she delivers.

When it ends, there’s some amount of contentment. Not because we saw a perfect movie by any means or even anything quite on par with Hitchcock or Sean Connery’s Bond, but we got to spend some quality time full of mayhem with two sublime personalities. It is all worthwhile because Peck and Loren are together.

After all, who wouldn’t want to swim in Oxfordshire with them? Maybe the days haven’t quite left us entirely, but I do crave more pictures that could coast on the charisma of their stars. Without question, Arabesque overrides its flaws through sheer star power.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Sophia Loren is an extraordinary treasure of the cinema. We know her from numerous Hollywood pictures but there’s something especially gratifying about hearing her in her mother tongue. It’s not that she is necessarily less herself in a picture like Houseboat, speaking English dialogue, but we can take it in the opposite way.

Seeing her in a film like this, with such a reputable director like Vittorio De Sica, in her native Italy, adeptly pulls us into the searing drama. It feels like we are seeing more of her. Because the beauty of emotions through cinema is the very fact they can speak to anyone from any nation, regardless of time or place. So it is with Two Women.

Though quite young to play a mother, Loren is, nevertheless, more than up to the task, emotionally exuding a fierce maternal strength in the face of everything. She’s not afraid about calling out certain men as pigs for their leering ways and forward behavior.  In fact, it seems highly prevalent behavior, troubling as it is to admit. Along the road, the relationship between mother and daughter is paramount and it evolves as they are burnished together. Eleanora Brown is only 11 years of age and yet she too, like her onscreen mother, is endowed with a maturity, a presence, far beyond her years. They carry the screen together.

However, Vittorio De Sica’s film is simultaneously a portrait of Italy during the war with Cesira (Loren) trying to eke by a living with her daughter Rosetta, away from Rome. They make the trek to the countryside to escape the destructive onslaught of Allied bombs. We begin to see war with a human face where goodness is maintained in the face of evil. For instance, she relents and gives aid to two stranded Englishmen, sharing a meal and a bottle of wine together cordially. They reciprocate some of the hospitality that has been extended to them by local families.

From all I know of Jean-Paul Belmondo as an unorthodox anti-hero for Godard and Melville, he seems somehow miscast for this role, completely disregarding the fact he’s not Italian. His Michelle is an enlightened man of intellect denoted by spectacles. He welcomes the change coming in the waning days of war and rebukes the people for being more dead than Lazarus. Not even Jesus Christ can resuscitate them he says. It seems a harsh indictment.

We can also hear Cesira counting sins and trying to decipher how children fit into the insanity of war. Because there’s little doubt war is exactly that. Planes continually dropping bombs from the skies overhead. Emaciated German soldiers demanding food at gunpoint and a hostage guide to lead them toward freedom. Finally, American forces move in with their liberation party riding in on their tanks and the mood lifts.

Thus, it’s a war film with soldiers of all different stripes and allegiances, but vastly more importantly it regards the lives of the laypeople and folks affected by the outcomes of such a global conflict. It is their homes and their families that are torn asunder. Their bodies are in need of nourishment. They are the ones in constant danger of becoming collateral damage.

It’s a disheartening form of whiplash sending us into so many conflicting fits of emotion. From the highest elation down to the mundane and finally heightened senses of fear and suffering. Humans should not be subjected to such extremes.

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Then, comes the scene you hear whispers of when anyone mentions Two Women and it’s true there is certainly a “before” and “after” effect from such a life-altering experience. All we can do is look on helplessly as the two travelers are overpowered by soldiers looking on lecherously, almost giddy with delight. The rest we understand implicitly. In the moment, it almost feels comical and ghoulish; it’s bitterly ironic these egregious acts are committed in a deserted church building of all places.

What is most piercing is the immediate aftermath because there is no way to disregard or forget what has just occurred. It is apparent in the eyes, the overwhelming despondency — the broken spirits of both mother and daughter.

They are left behind clinging to their bodies, clothes torn to shreds. There is no classical element like the Rape of the Sabine Women. It is all a facade, a galling lie. Rosetta becomes almost catatonic due to the horrible shock. Again, so much dwells within their eyes, going unspoken, hidden behind their glazed expressions. It is deeply unfeeling to simply label them two more casualties of an unjust war. Instead of putting words to it, the greatest form of agency is to allow us the opportunity to try and sympathize with them as closely as possible.

Sophia Loren is a reverred sex symbol and yet we cannot observe her in this light without also acknowledging the brokenness found widespread across culture. Where women are objectified, ogled, and desired. Where something sacrosanct like romantic love is trampled over for something cheaper, easier, and completely licentious.

Surely it’s within the context of war where these unspeakable things happen but still there is no excuse. The way the women are treated in this film is painfully devastating. Yes, Michele is lost, families are torn apart, and so much more, but this one incident is emblematic of it all. It’s one sign of so many other underlying issues with humanity.

The beauty of De Sica is the fact he never seems to be trying to capitalize on any amount of drama. He was a master of steeping us in very real emotions so we can better understand the plight of others not so different than ourselves.

I spoke earlier of a classical painting and somehow when the camera slowly pulls away from a mother with her child cradled in her arms, this unmoving portrait evoked the Pieta for me.  Fitting for a tradition steeped in religious imagery of the crucifixion. But it goes beyond the love of a mother for her child. Anyone familiar with the story knows that it revolves around a purportedly perfect individual’s undying love for the imperfect.

Michelle chides the townsfolk for being more dead than Lazarus. Perhaps even his own death cannot shock them back to reality but that does not mean there cannot be some semblance of hope left over. Love and resurrection; these things are still possible for those with hope and faith.

4/5 Stars

Sunflower (1970)

Vittorsunflowerio De Sica is at the forefront of Europe’s most accessible filmmakers of the 20th century and that’s because the stories he crafts are heartfelt, moving, and also enter comical territory with ease. Sunflower pairs him once again with two of Italy’s Titans Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, and as you would expect the film starts off full of passion, playfulness, and a little pasta. It’s the dawn of WWII and the frisky pair is in love, deciding to get a quick marriage so they might get a 12 day leave before Antonio has to ship out.

In a sense, this is a kind of war film, because Anto gets sent off to the Russian Front and we get a glimpse of the harsh realities there. We are treated to some newsreel style war footage all the while veiled with a billowing red flag. Sunflower is not a film about the politics of the war per se, but rather the effect that war has on people and their relationships.  It can heighten passion, tear people apart, and change lives for good.

When the news comes home that the war is over, there is a flood of relief and then everyone including Giovanna (Sophia Loren) frantically begins the search for their kith and kin. Worried mothers and wives bring their long-cherished photos into train stations clinging to the hope that just one person passing by will be able to give them some fragment of hope. That’s what Giovanni gets and it’s not much, but a jaded soldier who suffered alongside Anto tells her the last time they were together, he was freezing to death in the snow. Her first reaction is to berate him, but he’s too tired to care by now. So she prepares for the journey to Russia to find the whereabouts of her long-lost love. She will not take no for an answer, but what she finds is more painful than even she could expect. It’s a different type of scar, a different type of hurt that no one could foresee.

sunflower1In some respects, Sunflower feels like a precursor to Life is Beautiful (1997), because both films are full of hopefulness, but they both exist as heart-wrenching stories. They deliver the same moving swells of emotion, but for different reasons. Sunflower ends up feeling a little like Umbrellas of Cherbourg in its tragedy. But the title seems to suggest, maybe, just maybe, like the old adage says, out of the ashes beauty can still rise. All the pain and suffering are only the fertilizer for flowers to spring up from the desolated earth. A memorial of what has happened, but also a harbinger for the future.

This is truly an international film because although it’s in Italian, it was partially shot in Russia (a first for the USSR) and features Russian performer Lyudmila Savelyeva in a prominent role. But the lovely score comes courtesy of America’s own Henry Mancini, rounding out this film perfectly. It’s another pleasant surprise from Vittorio De Sica.

4/5 Stars

Marriage Italian Style (1964)

Marriage_Italian_StyleI had never seen any of De Sica’s later work and with the quintessential pairing of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni this seemed like a perfect place to start the journey. The character Domenico is easy to dislike from the beginning because he constantly floats in and out of the life of the former prostitute Filumena who is ironically devoted to him.

The film relates the struggles of matrimony and family in Italy as Filumena tries to support her family while struggling with Demenico who is never truly ready to commit to her. In fact he becomes absolute fed up with her after a trick marriage, but that is just the beginning.

I can only imagine what Divorce Italian Style will be like (which also features Mastroianni). Without question Sophia Loren is certainly the driving force in this film.

4/5 Stars

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

Yesterday,_Today_and_TomorrowThis is the lightest of any De Sica film I had seen up until this point and interestingly enough it was split up into three narratives. The first one follows a woman who continually gets pregnant in order to avoid going to jail, but after seven kids, the toll is too much on her jaded husband. Needless to say there is a happy ending.

The second tale follows a superficial socialite with a Rolls Royce. She ditches her cars as quickly as she ditches her lovers. Although the story does not go very far it is easy to see she is a snob used to getting her own way. Ironically a humble man would in many ways be too good for her.

The final vignette follows an amiable prostitute as she befriends a young man destined to join the clergy. However, he becomes smitten and so she must do her best to encourage him to continue his calling.

That really is only the basics, but it was certainly enjoyable to see Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in three separate roles playing off of each other in different ways. They reflected three very different walks of life and three varying relationships mixing a great deal of humor with a few more somber moments. All in all it was fairly enjoyable.

4/5 Stars