There used to be a TV panel show titled Life Begins at 80. That may be true, and I’ll find out in about ten years, but meanwhile Gianni Di Gregorio has gotten a head start.
Di Gregorio is an Italian filmmaker who got people to take him seriously when he was in his late 50s. He did it with a film called Pranzo di Ferragosto, known in English as Mid-August Lunch or Lunch for Ferragosto. “Ferragosto” — from the Latin meaning “feasts of Augustus” — is a mid-summer holiday that has its origins in the Roman Empire.
Di Gregorio, who has said that he had trouble getting financial backing because his 2008 film is about old people, directs and plays the principal character — Gianni. The use of the name is not so much the result of a lack of imagination as it is a result of the autobiographical aspects of the film.
Gianni, the character, is a middle-aged man who lives in Rome with his aged mother in a condominium they cannot afford. Gianni hasn’t paid the maintenance fee in two years, and the condo administrator comes around to say that Gianni and his Mama may be evicted. But the administrator has a problem that Gianni is in a position to solve, and the quid pro quo would be cancellation of some of Gianni’s debts. The administrator wants to take a short vacation, and he would like to leave his own aged mother in Gianni’s care. Gianni is in no position to turn down this offer, and he agrees to accept the woman as a guest.
Almost simultaneously, Gianni’s family doctor arrives for a house call. He, too, it turns out, needs a place to park his Mom — and there’s something in it for Gianni. When the doctor arrives with his mother, he brings along an aunt as well, and suddenly Gianni finds himself the chef and maître d’hôtel for a gaggle of ancient females who don’t always do as they are told.
The story of this odd situation and the events that result from it are told in this film, which DiGregorio directed, in manner so understated that one gets the feeling of observing people going about the minutiae of their everyday lives. Much of the dialogue (in Italian with English subtitles) consists of mumbled sentence fragments. The interchanges among the characters feels so natural that I suspect that much of the story was filmed without a firm script, or perhaps with no script at all.
If the cast didn’t depend heavily on a script, that would be appropriate, because several of them were not actors. For example, Valeria De Franciscis, who plays Gianni’s mother, was a family friend who, the director wisely thought, fit the part. De Franciscis was so well suited to the role that she played Di Gregorio’s mother again in his 2011 film, “The Salt of Life.”
Mid-August Lunch was well received when it first appeared and won some prestigious awards. It is highly regarded for the light touch with which it portrays some of the realities of middle and old age. It also reflects the relationship many Italian men have with their doting and possessive mothers. Many a tenor has enthusiastically sung about this phenomenon: “Mama . . . Tu sei la vita, e per la vita non ti lascio mai piu.” And, in fact, Di Gregorio shot much of this film in the apartment in which he lived for many years with his elderly mother.
Di Gregorio is, by reputation, a charming guy, and he certainly communicates that through the character in this film. He got off to a late start as a filmmaker, but I hope we’ll be seeing him and his work a lot more,