Once you get past the ludicrous promotional idea of “a new comedy by the makers of Gomorrah,” a brutal gangster picture from 2008, and settle into Gianni Di Gregorio’s unassuming little film Mid-August Lunch, you realize you’re in the realm of something just a bit special. When I say “little,” I’m being quite literal. This is a small movie. It runs a bit under 75 minutes. It largely takes place in one apartment in one neighborhood of Rome. It isn’t going much of anywhere and it’s not in a hurry to get there. That’s actually a plus and part of its charm.
The story is little more than a situation. Gianni (played by the film’s writer/director Gianni Di Gregorio) is a man approaching 60. He doesn’t work because he has to spend all his time taking care of his aged mother (Valeria De Franciscis), but he seems largely content to do so. There is a problem, however, since the family has suffered a financial setback and faces the incommodious prospect of being turned out into the street. Their apartment is a condominium on which they’ve not paid any maintenance for some considerable time (the electricity bill is three years in arrears). The neighbors are unsurprisingly tired of carrying them for free, but the man in charge of it all, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), has a proposition. If Gianni will take care of Alfonso’s aged mother (Marina Caccotti) for a couple days while he joins his family on a holiday, he’ll write off the debts.
Somewhat against his better judgment, Gianni and his mother agree to this—only to discover that Alfonso hasn’t been entirely honest. Not only does he appear to be going off with a mistress, but his mother also comes with a dotty aunt (Maria Cali) in tow. Instead of one extra old lady on his hands, Gianni has two. Soon their ranks enlarge by one more when Gianni’s doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) unloads his mother (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) on them. Worse, she comes with pills to be given at specific times and strict dietary requirements.
Di Gregorio’s interest lies in depicting the interaction of the four women and Gianni. The results could have been altogether too precious and too cute with very little trouble. The film flirts with this in detailing the women’s little acts of petty bickering and rebellion. Yes, one of them has a very active libido and is prone to sneaking out to a bar where she can drink and smoke. Yes, the one with the dietary restrictions has no intention of observing them. But somehow the film remains grounded in the basic reality of the personalities and the situation, and what results is a strikingly honest portrait of old age, its pleasures and its disappointments. It becomes a great little movie about old age precisely because it isn’t a movie about old age. It’s a movie with old characters in it. It observes and doesn’t preach or become cloyingly sentimental.
The film’s sole connection to Gomorrah lies in the fact that Gianni Di Gregorio wrote both movies and Matteo Garrone served as producer on both. Mid-August Lunch marks the 60-year-old Di Gregorio’s directing debut, and it’s a good one. His work is unfussy but assured, and marked with a keen eye for lighting and composition. His choice to use nonprofessionals for his cast might have been disastrous, but it works. And, yes, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a bit of autobiography in casting himself as a character with his own name (actually, all the characters use their real names). But it matters less than the results, which are pretty darn fine. Be quick if you’d like to see the film on the big screen—it’ll be gone come Friday. Not rated, but contains adult themes of a PG level.