Mid-August Lunch Review
A small but satisfying portion of a film, Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) seems like a movie where it's tough to think of anything especially negative to report. Maybe, at 75 minutes, it could be thought of as a little short but even the running time ensures that it doesn't wear out its welcome. Gianni Di Gregorio's film makes for a pleasant retreat from everything loud and shiny and overdone. Mid-August Lunch is charming in the way a chance encounter with an older, wiser person usually is, which is no accident considering the small cast is dominated by ladies with dietary restrictions and daily medications.
Screenwriter Di Gregorio made his directorial debut and also put himself front and center as the lead actor in the picture. He plays the son of an condominium-dwelling elderly woman who's a bit behind on her bills. When the building's administrator offers to knock off several expenses owed in exchange for looking after his mother, Gianni reluctantly obliges. Soon, Aunt Maria is thrown in as part of the deal and their doctor's mother later becomes the third house guest. It's Gianni's responsibility to look after these fairly rigid ladies and to cook for them during the couple of days they'll be staying.
Lots of humor, done somewhat dryly, slips into the film without any fanfare. For starters, Gianni uses every opportunity possible to enjoy a glass of wine. The minor eccentricities of the women also provide a good amount of comedy. One of them, Marina, is seemingly incensed at having her television taken away, to the point where Gianni knocks on her door throughout the night without any response and later brings her home from a night on the town. A lengthy ordeal over a macaroni casserole goes on long enough to draw quite a few laughs, and later has a wickedly funny payoff. Beyond all of that, several little moments come across as humorous despite being underplayed. Nearly every scene with Gianni's mother, a woman dotted with age marks and one who insists on wearing a blonde wig, contains a great deal of respectful humor. And it does seem important to mention that Di Gregorio never exploits his characters or makes you feel like you're laughing at them. When something's funny, it derives from situational humor within the characters.
If you recognize Di Gregorio's name as one of the writers of Gomorrah - and that film's director Matteo Garrone also serves as a producer here - don't be fooled into thinking there are any significant similarities. Di Gregorio has said that he was inspired by events in his own life when he went to live with his widowed mother for a ten-year stretch in the 1990s. The opportunity arose for him to take care of another similarly aged lady in exchange for financial forgiveness but he let his pride take over and declined. This film began with the idea of what might have been. It also seems to capture a romantic ideal that can sometimes exist about Italy. Though the setting is in Rome, all of the locations appear to be very ordinary and informal. There's even an authenticity about the film that should make a huge impression on those whose experience with the area is secondhand. As someone whose time spent in Italy has been all too brief, I hesitate to attach strong feelings that indicate Mid-August Lunch acts as the next best thing to being there but I do know that it represents how many of us want the country and its little communities to be. The simple idea that you can enter a shop selling wine, pick up a couple of bottles that go on a running tab and do so after tasting a glass is worth aspiring to and savoring.
Di Gregorio's film also surprises in several small ways. Its use of handheld camera work seems unexpected. The insistence on often unflattering close-ups and natural lighting also touches on an overall lack of modesty that informs the feature. The food angle seems to be a significant selling point of the picture but it's actually just a minor part of the whole. Food is respected and celebrated but I believe that's more of a cultural thing than an intentional emphasis here. Indeed, it's selling the film short to limit it to being just a food-oriented picture or something of that nature. The truth is that it's a very warm experience undaunted by sentimentality and comfortable with being modest. And modesty is underrated.
Mid-August Lunch hits North American shores via Zeitgeist's R1 DVD. It was previously released in the UK last December by Artificial Eye. The Zeitgeist disc is dual-layered.
Image quality is quite good, retaining a lot of the natural grain in the film. Detail should nonetheless be considered a real strong point of the transfer, even with the frequent use of natural light. A few benign speckles can be seen, but are probably only of interest to the sticklers. Colors appear accurate and reasonable. You might see some digital noise swirling around the picture. The 1.85:1 image is enhanced for widescreen televisions and the transfer is progressive.
Audio offers two options, both in Italian. One is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track while the other is a still-acceptable DD. 2.0 version. The differences aren't terribly important and register little beyond the obvious addition of surround channels. Even the stereo 2.0 track makes for a fine listen that lets the charming music featured on the soundtrack breathe nicely. Dialogue comes across cleanly without incident. Subtitles are provided in English, white in color, and free from any noticeable mistakes. The extras are also in Italian, with optional English subtitles.
There are a couple of supplements to be found on the disc and Zeitgeist has also included a nice little insert inside the case. The digital extras include an interview with Gianni Di Gregorio (7:58) where he talks a little about the making of the film. The featurette "A Visit with the Cast" (20:48) follows Di Gregorio as he checks in on the people who appeared in his movie. Both of these pieces are lively, entertaining watches that feel like a natural extension of the film. The enclosed booklet has a Director's Statement, a couple of recipes of dishes cooked in the film and short comments from the quartet of actresses who appear in the film. It's nice that a little label of Zeitgeist's size cares enough to include thoughtful extras like these. I did get a small laugh out of the prominent inclusion of a quote on the front cover from Lidia Bastianich, who's not a film critic but instead the host of an Italian-focused cooking show on public television.