Escaping When You Can’t – ‘Mid-August Lunch’ works well at a laid-back, improvised pace

Gianni Di Gregorio, foreground, and clockwise from his left: Valeria De Franciscis, Maria Cal?, Luigi Marchetti, Marina Cacciotti and Grazia Cesarini Sforza, star in "Mid-August Lunch." Courtesy photo
Gianni Di Gregorio, foreground, and clockwise from his left: Valeria De Franciscis, Maria Cal?, Luigi Marchetti, Marina Cacciotti and Grazia Cesarini Sforza, star in “Mid-August Lunch.”
Courtesy photo

Pranzo di Ferragosto, which has been translated into the title “Mid-August Lunch,” is the Italian holiday where almost everything shuts down, people leave the city and have a good meal. Imagine being too poor to leave and too devoted to an aging mother to do much of anything. That’s the setup in the short, minimal and enjoyable Italian film from director and writer Gianni Di Gregorio.

The story could not be farther from the gangster-driven “Gomorra” that he wrote with Maurizio Braucci, Matteo Garrone and others, but turns out to be based on his own time looking after his widowed mother. In debt and living at home with his mom, Gianni accepts a reduction in his tab by looking after the mother and aunt of his landlord. Sensing an opportunity, his doctor also pushes his mother onto him, and suddenly the stuffy Rome apartment is filled with four old ladies, one in her 90s, the others in their 80s. And they proceed to run him ragged, at first because they can’t get along, then later because they become close friends.

The film progresses at a laid-back, improvised pace — the four ladies are nonprofessional actors but have no problems coming up with dialogue — but that pace feels right. We feel the languid, hot summer weather, the stifling rooms, the cool night air. Although put on to cook for all four, we sense that Gianni not only doesn’t mind doing so, but is probably pretty good at it. (That macaroni casserole looks particularly tempting.)

With such an aged cast, the film chooses not to dwell on mortality. It’s there in their faces, in their reminiscences, but the film does not use it as a plot point.

The film is shot in natural light and with a rough vÉritÉ style that often results in sloppy compositions. But that adds to the homemade feeling of the film and the sense that life is simply unfolding, with little interference from the guiding hand of a screenwriter. (There are, of course, many hands at work here.)

Di Gregorio’s short feature (only 75 minutes) is not some return to neo-realism or a moral fable. The four ladies and the son do not have a tremendous character arc, but over the course of the film, they all open up and become happier. Gianni goes from harried to enjoying their company, and we leave the film feeling like we’ve only just started getting to know these people.

Life comes down to the pleasurable little moments, and “Mid-August Lunch” contains plenty of those. In the opening scene, Gianni reads “The Three Musketeers” to his mother, and she makes him go back to re-read Dumas’s description of d’Artagnan. She dismisses d’Artagnan for his hook-nose — not her type.

The palm-reading scenes are sweet, and the long interlude where Gianni goes out with his friend Viking in search of fresh fish on a day when all the shops are closed touches lightly on realism. By scooter, they travel through Rome and out into the suburbs, where they find some amateur fishermen down by the riverside. They buy some fish and stop to share a bottle of wine. Salud! It’s that kind of film.

‘MID-AUGUST LUNCH’
****
Starring: Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Cal” and Grazia Cesarini Sforza
No rating
Length: 75 minutes
Playing at: Paseo Nuevo

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