If you want an idea of real Roman life, look no further than Mid-August Lunch (2008). Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio, who directed, scripted and stars) and his 93-year-old mother Valeria share a large, dark, rambling flat in the Trastevere neighborhood. Valeria (Valeria De Franciscis) has a touch of Gloria Swanson about her and a whim of iron. She happily discusses whether Musketeer D’Artagnan would be her kind of man (“No!”), savors Gianni’s excellent cooking, and dresses to the nines for a day at home. On the eve of Ferragosto (August 15, when all commerce –and virtually all of Italy, save the tourist joints — comes to a complete halt), building manager Luigi (Alfonso Santagata) drops by to remind the pair that they’re seriously in arrears. Pulling Gianni aside, Luigi offers to defray some of the costs himself if Gianni will house and entertain his elderly mother, Marina (Marina Cacciotti), over Ferragosto. Turns out it’s a package deal, Luigi’s aunt Maria (Maria CalÃ¬) inclusive. When Gianni’s doctor comes by for a friendly check-up, he manages to slip in his elderly parent as well (Grazia Cesarini Sforza), leaving Gianni surrounded. Not a shrinking violet among them, the four women have a few clashes, give Gianni a few headaches, but really want nothing more than his full attention.
Despite its wisp of a story, Mid-August Lunch offers insights about Italian domestic life that are every bit as true as the violence in Gomorrah (which Di Gregorio co-scripted in 2008). The film shows the Italy tourists rarely see: a country of the young-old and the old-old, most of them female; where negotiation masquerades as conversation; where tourists themselves are part of the scenery (“so white, they look bleached,” as Gianni’s friend Viking (Luigi Marchetti) remarks); and where families are now as fractured as everywhere else in the developed world.
Di Gregorio found the women through open calls (including at senior activity centers), incorporating their improvisations into the story. The women’s naturalness adds a welcome lack of predictability and keeps things delightfully loose. Gian Erico Bianchi’s camerawork suggests the familial intimacy of Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican (1974), Mrs. Scorsese easy to imagine among the women at the holiday lunch. Much like When the Cat’s Away (Cédric Klapisch, 1996), Mid-August Lunch avoids all Rome sightseeing, focusing instead on the casual, almost small-town feel of Trastevere.
There’s no great turning point, deep insight or nifty resolution – mercifully. Even the bits of friction are quickly resolved. But as the actors dance together over the final credits, Mid-August Lunch confirms that age is merely a fact, not a definition, the entire cast on the unhappier side of 50 and having a ball.
Mid-August Lunch opens March 17, 2010 at Film Forum in New York City.