“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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Sky Arts’ Superb Documentary on Ingrid Bergman Roberto Rossellini Scandal.

In the late 40s Roberto Rossellini, the most revered and respected art house film director in Europe secretly contacted Ingrid Bergman, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, to come over and make a film with him.

Why secretly? Because at the time he was having a very public affair with the most famous actress in Italy.

Anna Magnani had given Rossellini one of the most iconic images in the history of Italian film. It was she who ran down the street in desperation as her fiancée was carted away by the fascists in Rome, Open City in 1945.

She was everything Bergman wasn’t. Earthy, corporeal, and inescapably and gloriously southern.

So when Rome’s favourite actress learned that the ethereal, Nordic beauty had been secretly ensconced on a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily (Sicily for Heavens sake!) to star in the latest vehicle of her now former paramour, she sprang into action.

She got Rossellini’s cousins to start shooting a suspiciously similar film on the next door island, with her as its leading lady. In what sense suspiciously similar? Well the script that Rossellini had now begun shooting on the island of Stromboli was based on an idea he’d stolen from them in the first place.

And so, for the next few months, what became dubbed as the War of The Volcanoes was played out off the Straights of Messina, where once Odysseus had been forced to steer between Charybdis and Scylla, as the two warring film crews took to the field.

And when a visibly ahem heavier Bergman was spied acting in a film that now included a hastily written pregnancy storyline, the Italian paparazzi went to town. Not because he was cheating, again, on his wife, but because he was doing so at the expense of his film star and oh so Italian mistress.

Though technically of course, there was no such thing as the paparazzi then. It was only after  Fellini introduced the character of Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita a decade later that the term was coined. Fellini, by the by, had been one of the scriptwriters on Rome, Open City.

The War of the Volcanoes perfectly struck the balance between red top sensationalism and blue top calm. It told a fascinating story superbly without shying away from the scandal it caused at the time. And, more to the point, it’s further proof that Sky seem to be moving into the arts in much the same way that they previously homed in on sport.

They provide a steady stream of grown-up arts docs, some of which they buy in but more of which they help fund, and they are quietly poaching some of the better British brains determined to report on all things cultural. The migration of The South Bank Show there is very much the rule and not the exception.

All of which is very much a good thing. Now that Channel Four has focused its attention on becoming ITV Lite (I know I know, that’s a tautology), it’s vital that there’s something there to keep BBC4 and 2 on its toes.

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