Mid-August Lunch

Mid-August Lunch is a miniature gem, a simple, unassuming comedy of manners that plays out over a sunny weekend in a few dusty streets in central Rome.

Gianni (played by writer and first-time director Gianni Di Gregorio) is a middle-aged bachelor who lives with his widowed, elderly mother (Valeria De Franciscis) in an old apartment block. Unemployed and undemanding, Gianni’s life revolves around looking after his mama. As the film opens, he is reading her to sleep, a chapter from The Three Musketeers. In the morning, he makes her breakfast. She accepts his ministrations with queenly grace. What time Gianni has outside the house is spent with his drinking buddy Viking (Luigi Marchetti), sipping wine in the shade outside the local shop.

The day before the August bank holiday known as the Ferragosto, when the citizens traditionally escape the city heat for the coast, Gianni’s landlord asks him to take care of his mother for the weekend. In exchange, he will settle some of the service charges Gianni has ignored for years. Strapped for cash, Gianni is forced to accept. Treacherously, the next morning, the landlord arrives with two old dears, the mother (Marina Cacciotti) and Aunt Maria (Maria Cali).

Overwhelmed by the prospect of a houseful of elderly women, Gianni feels a little faint, so he calls his friend, a doctor. After a reassuring examination and some wheedling smalltalk, the doctor foists his own mother on him, “just for one night”. Crammed together in the small apartment, at first, the four women bicker over access to the television and the dinner menu. Soon, however, they have bonded over palm-reading sessions around the kitchen table as Gianni runs around, catering to their every need.

Di Gregorio fills out his story with a series of offhand moments; a mortifying romantic fumble on the couch, a trip across the deserted city to buy fish from the banks of the Tiber, a much-debated recipe for pasta bake. Elegantly played and emotionally lively, Mid-August Lunch is might be small but it is perfectly formed, deftly revealing over the course of it’s seventy minute running time, the obsessions of the Italian male; mama, food and hypochondria.

A kitchen-sink comedy is not the sort of film you would expect from Di Gregorio, who co-wrote the gritty mafia drama Gomorrah (one of the best films of last year) with director Matteo Garrone, who produces here. As a director, Di Gregorio moves the camera around the cramped apartment with seamless grace but even in the golden summer sun, the results are at best, perfunctory. Still, it's not about chocolate-box photography, it's about character.

Astonishingly, none of the women have acted before. As the lead, and essentially playing himself, Di Gregorio maintains a good-natured stoicism, dealing with whatever minor dramas the old women throw in his face but the curtailed nature of the story, more an anecdote than a fully-fleshed drama, doesn’t allow Gianni much room to develop. He seems perfectly happy with things the way they are, and when they are as simple and pleasurable as this, who can blame him?

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