[6 October 2010]
It would be understandable if, upon receiving an invitation to sit down with a quartet of octogenarian and nonagenarian ladies for lunch, you immediately search out other activities that appear more entertaining or hold the promise of greater excitement. Whilst others may forgive this desire to be excused from such an engagement, you may quickly come to regret such a rash decision. The prospect may seem dull and interminable at the start, but should you accept this invitation you may quickly find yourself in complete enjoyment of your elderly company.
Such is the case with the delightful 2008 Italian film Mid-August Lunch ( Pranzo di Ferragosto). A small and unassuming movie Mid-August Lunch tells the tale of Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio), a 50-ish bachelor who tends to his aging mother Valeria (Valeria de Franciscis) in their well-worn Roman flat. It’s nearly Ferragosto, the Italian end of summer holiday, and Gianni is one of the few Romans still left baking in the heat of the city. A dutiful and loving son, Gianni has a fondness for wine and a relaxed attitude towards all responsibilities beyond his mother’s care.
Perpetually behind with his rent and utilities, Gianni faces the possibility of eviction. Approached by the building manager Luigi (Alfonso Santagata), who is desperate to head to the coast for the long holiday weekend, Gianni is offered the chance to ease his mounting debts. All he must do is watch after his landlord’s mother while he heads out of town. Gianni reluctantly agrees and prepares for the temporary inconvenience.
The next day Luigi returns with not only his mother (Marina Cacciotti) but also, his Aunt Maria (Maria Cali) who needs a bed for a few nights. In short order, Gianni is paid a visit by his doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) who implores him to please watch after his mother (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) for a few brief days. Armed with a list of dietary restrictions and health guidelines Gianni’s third houseguest only adds to his sense of a lost weekend. Gianni takes these inconveniences in stride and approaches the situation with mild chagrin and bemused resignation.
Truth be told not a lot happens in Mid-August Lunch. Gianni cooks for, listens to and tends to the needs of his temporary houseguests. Over the course of their stay the four women politely bicker, tell stories and share meals. Their personalities are distinct and their lives are never reduced to simple caricature. Di Gregorio treats his leading ladies (all non-professional actors) with an admiration and playfulness that is rarely afforded to women—let alone those well past the fresh bloom of youth.
Clocking in at just 75-minutes Mid-August Lunch is more of a vignette than a sustained narrative. The film is an accumulation of moments—gentle hints that touch on the comedy, drama and unforced beauty of ordinary people. Mid-August Lunch is a gentle movie— unrushed and tended to with great love.
What is to be savored in this small film is Gianni Di Gregorio’s organic storytelling, unforced direction and utter appreciation for his elderly co-stars. Like the meals prepared throughout the film, this is a simple story free of artifice and unnecessary adornment. As a writer and director, Di Gregorio is not interested in packaging canned life lessons to pass on and feed to his audience. Rather, he has the confidence to stand back and snap a portrait of a group of women whose lives are both ordinary and profound.
Extras on the disc are fairly standard and include an interview with writer and director Gianni Di Gregorio, a selection of recipes inspired by the film and A Visit With the Cast, a 20-minute documentary where Di Gregorio catches up with his leading ladies.
We all know that a good meal requires more than just delectable food. It’s an elusive alchemy that goes beyond adherence to recipes and table settings. Good meals—the most memorable ones anyway—are those that fuse disparate elements into a unifying whole. If pressed, we may struggle to identify the specific ingredients that contributed to our enjoyment, but we remain sated by the experience had.
Mid-August Lunch is that kind of film whose pleasure lingers well after its final dish has been served.