Gianni Di Gregorio’s debut feature film, MID-AUGUST LUNCH, has you hooked from its very first scene. It is August in a desultory Rome deserted by all save the most dogged tourists, and Giovanni (Di Gregorio) is, as always, caring for his aged mother Valeria (Valeria De Franciscis), with whom he lives. He reads “The Three Musketeers” to her and she stops him, asking for a description of D’Artagnan, so she can visualize him in her mind’s eye. He patiently turns to the beginning of the book and begins to rattle off Alexandre Dumas’ verbal portrait of his hero. A high forehead, a strong jaw – all of these please Mama, until Giovanni gets to D’Artagnan’s hawklike nose. “No!” the old lady cries, “I don’t like that!”
In a nutshell, you immediately get Giovanni’s enclosed, reasonably happy, dutiful bachelor life, which is complicated when his building manager (an amusingly brusque Alfonso Santagata) dumps his mother Marian (Marina Cacciotti) and aunt Maria (Maria Cali) on him so he can take a holiday with his girlfriend. Giovanni, who owes money for his apartment maintenance, has no recourse but to accept, and then a doctor friend (Marcello Ottolenghi) adds his own mother, Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza), to the mix, when he finds he has to work late hours at the hospital.
Di Gregorio (a leading Italian screenwriter), in both his performance and direction, sustains an irresistibly droll, dry, improvisatory tone here which keeps a smile on your face throughout, with frequent intervals of laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s all in the splendidly observed human behavior on view – the ravenous way the doctor’s mother, forbidden just about every kind of food, devours a plate of ham upon entering Giovanni’s home, the inevitable battles over the TV and the toll it takes on him moving the set from room to room with variable reception, the utterly genteel way Valeria expresses her desire to stay in her room and not mix with these unwanted boarders. Di Gregorio’s poker-faced reactions to the ladies’ varied, unpredictable antics are absolutely priceless.
The actresses playing his charges are all, amazingly, non-professionals, making their acting debuts. De Franciscis as Valeria is imperiously regal, even in a blonde wig which looks like a dead animal act on her head. Cacciotti is a haughty, bawdy presence, wholly unwilling to go gentle into that good night, even attempting to seduce Giovanni at one point. Cali has a sweet old maid-ish quality, reminiscent of great character actor Elizabeth Patterson, never more so than when she shyly models a festive hat forced upon her by Valeria. The birdlike Sforza makes a literal meal of her role as the ever-hungry Grazia.
Along with the hilarity, the film is also a sensitively etched portrayal of aging, without a trace of condescension. It’s the kind of film Hollywood may very well snatch up and remake, i.e., ruin, with someone like Robin Williams in the lead, and biddies from Joan Plowright to Rue McLanahan. Do yourself a complete favor, and don’t miss this wonderfully humane and funny film before that happens.
MID-AUGUST LUNCH is being shown as part of the NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS festival:
Fri Apr 3: 6:15 (WALTER READE THEATER)
Sat Apr 4: 3:45 (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART)