I don't know exactly how many films the great screen partnership of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni made together. I read recently that it was an incredible seventeen, but a quick look at their respective filmographies produced a figure of eleven -- so it is probably somewhere in between, from the first in 1955 to the last in "Pret-a-Porter" (1994).
I've wanted to see the above movie -- one of their later co-starrers -- for ages. The movie was Academy-nominated for best foreign picture and Mastroianni had a best actor nod as well. However the only copies available over the years were dubbed ones, to which I have a rooted objection. So the film remained on my 'would like to see list'. It's never appeared on British television, so I was amazed to find it scheduled on the new and fairly minor satellite channel 'Talking Pictures', which specialises in hoary old British B-movies. Naturally it was dubbed, interrupted with ads, and a terrible print, but at long last I was able to view it, if not ideally.
The special day in question is the 8th of May, 1938 when Rome was 'honoured' by a visit from Adolf Hitler. The film begins with some ten minutes of archive footage featuring Hitler, Mussolini, and King Victor Emmanuel III, before it cuts to the flat where Loren lives with her brutish husband (Canadian actor John Vernon) and their six children. She was 43 when the film was shot by director Ettore Scola and appears without any side as the shabby, downtrodden hausfrau that she is portraying; yet a handsome woman shines through. Her family are all excited about the day's parades and celebrations and soon troop down to the street, along with the dozens of other inhabitants of their huge Fascist-built apartment block, like a swarm of ants streaming from their hill, leaving her to get on with her endless domestic chores. Another tenant across the courtyard, who has not left his apartment, is Mastroianni whom we observe on the brink of suicide. A chance encounter pursuing an escaped pet bird throws them together and their paths continue to cross throughout the day.
It emerges that he is a disgraced radio announcer who has been dismissed for anti-Fascist views and the fact that he is homosexual. His last 'friend' has been deported to Sicily and the same fate awaits him. Before he blurts this information out to Loren, they have enjoyed the casual intimacy of growing friendship, and she comes on strong to him, slapping him hard when she hears his confession. Still she is so hungry for affection and gentleness that she continues her sexual pursuit of the attractive fellow (I doubt whether there was any thought whatsoever in her mind of being able to 'convert' him). Yet he remains unmoved, his face cold and abstracted, while the voluptuous Loren craves some response, some warmth, some solace. They end the day as friends, but two outsiders who each must get on with their hopeless lives. We last see them as she is again the dogsbody for her demanding family now bursting with patriotic pride and as he is marched off with his suitcase by two ominous-looking chaps to the strains of the "Horst Wessel" song.
In fact all of the action is counter-pointed by jingoistic and martial music in the background throughout, underlining the 'great' day's importance to the rest of the city. The print that was broadcast was horribly faded to a brownish sepia, although the film was shot in muted colour. Ironically this rather suited the documentary nature of that infamous May day, although I don't think this is what Scola intended. Anyhow the good news is that a restored version of the movie in the original Italian is now available from Criterion and a copy is wending its way across the Atlantic as we speak. Initially I was a little undecided myself about this film -- and critical opinion seems to vary widely -- but on reflection I think it showcases two magnificent performances and I can't wait to watch it again as it was meant to be viewed.
An interesting footnote: one of Loren's daughters is played by the young Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce's grand-daughter and interestingly Loren's niece, who subsequently became a well-known political figure in Berlusconi's government.