A Special Day”, “ Padre Padrone” and the 1977 Cannes Film Festival

Una Gior­na­ta Particolare

The Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1977 was fought out between two rel­a­tive­ly low-key Ital­ian films, Una Gior­na­ta Par­ti­co­lare and Padre Padrone. So it was up to that year’s jury head, the revered Ital­ian neo­re­al­ist Rober­to Rosselli­ni, to reach a deci­sion. His ver­dict proved con­tro­ver­sial on two counts. 

Una Gior­na­ta Par­ti­co­lare, clum­si­ly trans­lat­ed as A Spe­cial Day (though I can’t, I have to con­fess, think of an improve­ment), is set on May 6th, 1938 and is par­ti­co­lare for a num­ber of rea­sons. It was on this day that the Führer arrived in Rome from Nazi Ger­many to pay an offi­cial state vis­it to his good friend and fel­low dic­ta­tor Mussolini.

The dra­ma unfolds over a sin­gle day and takes place entire­ly in a now emp­ty block of flats, as prac­ti­cal­ly all the res­i­dents have flocked to pay trib­ute to the vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries. The only two peo­ple left are Sophia Loren, the down-trod­den, stay at home moth­er of six, and Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni, an urbane and secret­ly gay radio announcer.

Loren and Mas­troian­ni as they are more tra­di­tion­al­ly imagined.

It’s par­ti­co­lare for him, because this is the day that he, like so many oth­er gay men in 30s Rome, is due to be exiled to the island of Sar­dinia. That being the not quite final solu­tion employed by the peren­ni­al­ly inept fas­cists that Italy laboured under. And it’s par­ti­co­lare for her, in that she ends up spend­ing it almost entire­ly in his company.

Rather like Demy’s The Umbrel­las of Cher­bourg, if in a some­what less oper­at­ic man­ner, what’s so engag­ing about Ettore Sco­la’s film is the way he trans­forms what could have been a drab, kitchen sink dra­ma and ele­vates it into some­thing else entire­ly. Rather than under­mine the dra­ma, the pres­ence of Italy’s two most glam­orous movie stars, play­ing glo­ri­ous­ly against type, lifts the film from what could have been a very grim affair. As does the way the film is shot and so care­ful­ly chore­o­graphed. The result is not at all what you’d expect giv­en the sub­ject mat­ter. And is all the more mov­ing thereafter.

Padre Padrone.

Padre Padrone, by Pao­lo and Vit­to­rio Taviani, offers a dif­fer­ent kind of grim. Set in what feels like anoth­er cen­tu­ry but is in fact the remote rur­al moun­tains of Sar­dinia in the 1950s, it’s about the effec­tive impris­on­ment of the young Gavi­no, who is bound by the cen­turies-old tra­di­tion that he serve his father on the bar­ren fam­i­ly farm. And his deter­mi­na­tion to some­how escape, which he does ulti­mate­ly through the por­tal of education.

But it too is mould­ed into a sur­pris­ing form. It begins and ends as if it were a doc­u­men­tary, which, far from giv­ing you any sense of actu­al­i­ty, mere­ly serves to height­en the sense of arti­fice. As does the fact that, once we embark on the film prop­er, we are con­stant­ly privy to the inner thoughts of the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. Includ­ing, even, the farm ani­mals that they come into con­tact with.

One of the great, icon­ic scenes in Ital­ian cin­e­ma, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

That reg­u­lar intru­sion of those voice overs, as we eaves­drop on what they are think­ing, is used by the Taviani broth­ers to con­scious­ly dis­tance the view­er from what feels oth­er­wise like an inti­mate por­trait of real peo­ple liv­ing their actu­al lives. 

You can see what a film mak­er like Rosselli­ni would have been drawn to in each of these two films. But it’s equal­ly obvi­ous how far film had moved since his hey day, even with films that were deal­ing with exact­ly the kinds of top­ics that he had once been drawn to.

Ulti­mate­ly, it seems that the pres­ence of two titans like Loren and Mas­troian­ni, and those elab­o­rate­ly orches­trat­ed shots of Scola’s, proved too much for him, and he cam­paigned vig­or­ous­ly for Padre Padrone, which duly took the prize. The con­tro­ver­sy that fol­lowed was twofold.

Mas­troian­ni and Sco­la teamed up again for what is one of the very few films that gets Naples.

On the one hand, the oth­er mem­bers of the jury let it be known that they had very much not appre­ci­at­ed his 12-Angry-Men like deter­mi­na­tion to con­vert them to his choice – if indeed that waswhat actu­al­ly hap­pened. And on the oth­er, rather more sur­pris­ing­ly, the Fes­ti­val com­mit­tee announced that they too were unhap­py with the deci­sion. Their rea­son though was on the grounds that Padre Padrone was in fact a made for tele­vi­sion “film”, and Cannes was a cel­e­bra­tion of cin­e­ma with a cap­i­tal C.

They rang Rosselli­ni up a few weeks lat­er to smooth things over, and to invite him on to the fol­low­ing year’s jury. But a week after he returned to Rome, he died of a heart attack.

Truth be told, watch­ing them both today, it’s dif­fi­cult to say which of the two is the bet­ter film. They are both, in their very dif­fer­ent ways, won­der­ful. But ulti­mate­ly, you would have to side with the rest of the jury. There’s a clas­si­cism and bal­ance to Una Gior­na­ta Par­ti­co­lare and a uni­ver­sal­i­ty to its themes which, nec­es­sar­i­ly, isn’t there for the very par­tic­u­lar and specif­i­cal­ly local sto­ry that Padre Padrone tells.

You can see the trail­er for A Spe­cial Day here

And the trail­er to Padre Padrone here

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