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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