Mid-August Lunch: Buon Appetito!

In my recent interview with Ed Asner, which will be published in the May issue of The Progressive Magazine, the 80-year-old actor who gave voice to the lead character in the Best Picture nominee and Oscar-winning animated feature Up laments the fact that Hollywood live action films ignore the elderly. Asner’s wish for movies about the aged and their particular issues may have come true with Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo Di Ferragosto), a 2008 Italian film opening April 9 in Los Angeles and subsequently throughout the USA.

There are no gunfights, torture sequences, stripteases, monsters, car chases or even wheelchair chases in Mid-August Lunch, which has a simple enough plot and a running time of less than 90 minutes. Written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who co-wrote the completely different but critically acclaimed 2008 gangster flick Gomorrah), Di Gregorio also stars as the financially hard-pressed Gianni, who lives with his 93-year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis) in a Roman apartment, where he has fallen behind on the payments. Gianni appears to be unemployed, and the film also appears to be a wry commentary on unemployment, exploitation and class issues, as well as on the aging process.

Just as the entire nation of France shuts down for the month of August, Italians head for the hills and holidays in the middle of that same month for the Feast of the Assumption (called in Italian “Pranzo Di Ferragosto”, hence the source of the film’s original title). The building manager (Alfonso Santagata) takes advantage of Gianni’s hardship by pressuring his tenant to take his elderly mother (Marina Cacciotti) off of his hands so he can sneak away for a vacation with his much younger signorina. In lieu of payment for a checkup, a doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) similarly presses Gianni to babysit his mom (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) during the mid-August holiday.

Pretty soon, the gang’s all here, in Gianni’s apartment, where he grouses that he’s forced to take care of the aged women. How will they get along? Or will they? How will Gianni relate to the old folks? While Hollywood movies more often than not use kiss kiss bang bang action to substitute for the underlying drama of real life, in his directorial debut Di Gregorio has succeeded in revealing the tensions, conflicts, fears, et al, of reality – all without firing a shot.

In my upcoming Progressive Magazine interview with Asner he cites loneliness as a major concern of the aging, and Di Gregorio squarely deals with this haunting issue in Mid-August Lunch. Consider that while few of us will ever have to personally confront terrorism, loneliness is, alas, a common enough affliction. Especially if most of your friends have long since passed from the scene. Which is more terrifying? Most of us will never be skyjacked, but old age awaits us all – that is, if we are fortunate enough to live out our natural life spans. Yet few films from Tinseltown deal with this universal situation and, in fact, with Hollywood’s fixation on youth and absorption with teen demographics, one can argue that most American movies obsessively avoid these cold hard facts.

Mid-August Lunch may be out of step with the movie mainstream (all the more reason to feast your eyes on it), but it is very much in the Italian cinematic tradition of Neo-Realism. Like his motion picture predecessors such as Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini, Di Gregorio has cast a number of non-professional actors in the roles of the Italian mamas, and a couple of the director’s real life friends to play versions of themselves. This “amateur” casting – as the term “Neo-Realist” implies – often gives performances a more true-to-life, if less polished, quality, and it works very well onscreen here.

In addition to being that rare filmic concoction preoccupied with the subject of the elderly, cooking and eating are also main ingredients in this feature. As its title suggests, Mid-August Lunch serves a recipe for foodies, and is in that grand gastronomical tradition of movies such as Tom JonesLike Water for Chocolate, and Julie and Julia. Buon appetito!

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.

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