Perhaps he really needed to do something life-affirming after 2008's impressive but generally bleak Gomorrah, the multi-level evocation of the mafia in contemporary Italy. Or maybe Gianni Di Gregorio is just much more than a one note artist. The man who was one of the writers and the co-scenarist of Gomorrah, couldn't have brought a more different project to the screen than Mid-August Lunch. And Mr. Di Gregorio does most of the bringing in this case, having worked as one of the writers, directing (for the first time) and acting. He's the amiable, if reluctant axle on which the brief, beguiling story spins.
It's Pranzo di Ferragosto - Italy's biggest summer holiday and the Feast of the Assumption - in Rome and seemingly everyone has fled the big city. Being a good boy, much as he is in comfortable late middle age, Gianni sticks around to take care of his 93-year old mother. He doesn't so much lament that fate as state it matter of factly to his friend, Viking, early on, as the two sit drinking outside a neighborhood shop. As his responsibilities quickly multiply, Gianni will never be far from his next sip of white wine.
While Gianni and his mother seem to have a comfortable routine, all is not well. Their building manager, Alfonso, stops by to remind Gianni that not only has the electric bill gone unpaid for three years, the condo association is threatening legal action to jettison the mother and son, who haven't contributed to any of the building's upkeep.
But Alfonso has a deal for Gianni. If he'll watch his mother while he gets away on holiday for a couple of days, Alfonso will take care of the back debts. However, when Alfonso drops off his mother, his aunt Maria is in tow. While he's barely had time to digest the two additional old women now in his charge, Gianni calls in his physician friend for a house call (he's got mild angina) only to have that visit end with the doctor telling Gianni that he has to watch his mother for the night, as her Romanian companion has also flown the coop. By this time, Gianni seems to have accepted his fate; he barely puts up a fight. Di Gregorio's face throughout Mid-August Lunch is almost a caricature of benevolent resignation.
With the arrival of the doctor's mother, Grazia, the crowded household is complete. But this is not Golden Girls, Italian style, much as some of the audience members at the screening where I saw the film insisted initially on guffawing uproariously at every demand or request issued by one of the women. Fortunately, the laughers came to realize that farce is not the goal here. Mid-August Lunch is something more subtle.
While I watched a film that had both an understanding of and affection for it's older women, I was reminded of the frequently mawkish documentary, Young At Heart. If it's smarmy director wasn't taking a condescending tone - Aren't those old people adorable singing punk songs! - with his geriatric subjects, he was betraying a morbid curiousity about the physical manifestations of their age, as with the intense close-up on one of the female singers facial hair.
I must admit, I was morbidly fascinated with the physical manifestations of Valeria De Franciscis' 90- plus years of life. Her skin has gone beyond the usual marks of old age to a kind of deeply hued, richly patterned fabric. While she is generally seen in her room, recessed in shadow, there is a scene late in Mid-August Lunch, when the camera, with full benefit of light, is trained directly on her. It's as if De Gergorio is saying, "That's right - there she is, all 93 years of her. It's okay - look" And while the good woman's old skin seems like so much ill-fitting and unflattering leather, you believe Grazia, when reading her fortune says, "You'll live to be a 100." The body might be saggging, the skin retreating, but the spirit seems not nearly ready to expire.
The eponymous lunch turns into an occasion that subsumes all the the women's disparate needs and personalities. As the wine flows and dietary restrictions are happily pushed aside for the afternoon, they want nothing more than to extend the holiday. They even bribe the weary Gianni to keep the fun going. Much as the lunch is the film's summation, an earlier scene is perhaps the most telling of the film and the group we are made to consider.
While he is running himself ragged, cooking to everyone's particular taste, trying to make sure prescribed medicines are taken at the proper time and occasionally grab a moment's peace - a seat somewhere quiet, a cigarette and the ubiquitous glass of vino - Alfonso's mother sneaks off. Gianni finds her at a nearby restaurant. Since she's found a place to drink and smoke, Alfonso's mother has no desire to return. Finally, after joining her for perhaps several rounds, Gianni gets her back home. Even then, the older woman is restless and doesn't want to let Gianni leave. There's a boozy tug of war between the two, a cartoonish seduction. If such a film were to occur in an American film, it would have to be the male taking on the older role in the May/December jousting. Here, it's an older woman who gets to be the one who just wants to live a little bit, get drunk and lust after a younger man. Gianni smiles, the two laugh and sit for a few more minutes. It's no big deal
And really, ultimately, there is the pleasure of watching Italians be Italian. There's certainly something of the relaxed old world here in general, but a personality specific to the place as well. The flow and purr of the language. The pleasure of preparing and and eating good food. The value of devoting a portion of one's time to sitting about, talking, a glass of wine hand, doing nothing in particular, a caesura to the more busy music of the day. However maddening or stifling at times, the particularly Italian bond of mother and son.
Of course, there's more to Italy than a group of charming older people and some good cooking. Again, go back only as far as Di Gregorio's last project, Gomorrah, if you want a broader scope and a darker take. But if you're in the market for something quietly life-affirming, you could find far worse company than Gianni and his four mothers, real and temporarily adopted.
Pranzo di Ferragosto (Italy’s biggest summer holiday, and the Feast of the Assumption)