Directed by Gianni Di Gregorio. Italy. 2008. NR. 75 min.
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“The ladies who lunch in Gianni Di Gregorio’s luminous sliver of a film, Mid-August Lunch, are Roman women in their 80s and beyond who have gathered in a small condominium in the Trastevere neighborhood. The modest apartment is the home of Gianni (Mr. Di Gregorio), an unemployed 50-something bachelor, and his 93-year-old mother, Valeria (Valeria De Franciscis).
A dutiful and devoted son, Gianni, who has a mild heart ailment, always carries a glass of white wine in his hand. He is first seen patiently reading The Three Musketeers aloud to Valeria, an elegantly dressed and coiffed woman whose cavernous, deeply tanned face is beautiful despite alarmingly weather-beaten skin.
When the condominium’s manager, Luigi (Alfonso Santagata), informs Gianni that his bill for electricity and other services has remained unpaid for three years, a deal is struck. If Gianni will look after Luigi’s mother, Marina (Marina Cacciotti), for a couple of days around Ferragosto, the Italian holiday celebrated on Aug. 15, his debts will be forgiven.
To Gianni’s mild chagrin, Luigi arrives not only with his mother but also with her sister, Maria (Maria Calì). Coincidentally, Gianni’s doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) pays a visit to monitor Gianni’s blood pressure and prevails on him to take in his own mother, Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza), who is afflicted with an array of ailments that require several medications and strict dietary guidelines. Suddenly Gianni, reduced to sleeping in a deck chair, is single-handedly running what amounts to a temporary geriatric ward.
How these four elderly women interact and turn Gianni into a willing servant is the substance of “Mid-August Lunch,” a slender Chekhovian vignette about the joys and regrets of old age and the pleasures of sociability. All four women emerge as vital, quirky, independent spirits who eventually bond, after some initial friction.
Valeria, whose elaborate, swept-up hairdo suggests a copper-colored froth of whipped cream, is the most imperious. For a while she commandeers the apartment’s only television and sets herself apart from the others. Once settled in, the women engage in small acts of self-assertion. One unashamedly flirts with Gianni. Another gripes about the kind of pasta being prepared.
Grazia blithely ignores her doctor’s orders and surreptitiously devours a forbidden macaroni casserole. Maria, from whom Valeria wrested the television set, sneaks off to a nearby cafe for a drink.
When Gianni runs out of food, he goes shopping for fish reeled directly from the Tiber River and brings them back for a holiday feast he cooks with his best friend, Viking (Luigi Marchetti). The movie’s scenes of food preparation are mouthwatering.
Amid the teeny conflicts, there is no high drama and little overt pathos beyond Grazia’s observation that “without memories, what would you do?” The performances by nonprofessional actors are so perfectly natural that Mid-August Lunch often has the feel of an easygoing documentary.
One of the film’s deepest satisfactions is its characters’ complete lack of ruminative psychologizing. When the women look back, it is with a sense of having lived full lives. Had Mid-August Lunch wavered from its matter-of-fact realism, it might have toppled into sentimentality or morbidity. Instead it is a group portrait of people who are comfortable with who they are, savoring the pleasures of food and companionship and living in the moment. The movie glows.” (Stephen Holden, The New York Times)