A charming, unpretentious film, "Mid-August Lunch" is whisper-thin and so delicately balanced that piling on too much praise could punch a hole in its unassuming cocoon.

A charming, unpretentious film, “Mid-August Lunch” is whisper-thin and so delicately balanced that piling on too much praise could punch a hole in its unassuming cocoon. Story of a sixtysomething guy who lives with his mother and is forced to look after three other elderly ladies has a naturalism and focus that could serve as a template for aspiring directors who too often think small is somehow less worthwhile. Scripter Gianni Di Gregorio’s helming debut is a surefire pleaser for crowds of a certain age, and should win over Italo fests worldwide. Pic nabbed the prize for first feature in Venice.

Thanks to his years in the biz as scribe and assistant director, Di Gregorio was able to bring together a team of ace technicians despite a super-low budget: besides Matteo Garrone (“Gomorrah”) as producer, the pic has top editor Marco Spoletini onboard, as well as scripter Massimo Gaudioso collaborating as artistic director. Along with a cast of largely nonpros, they’ve succeeded in lensing a slip of a story whose gentle, feel-good vibes and Cassavetes-inspired camerawork can straddle both popular and critical tastes.

Gianni (Di Gregorio) lives in the Roman district of Trastevere with his 93-year-old mother, Valeria (Valeria De Franciscis). A character in the best sense, Valeria enjoys a close, conspiratorial relationship with her son, while his social life is, by necessity, limited. On the eve of the midsummer Italian holiday of Ferragosto, he’s approached by building manager Luigi (Alfonso Santagata) and blackmailed into looking after Luigi’s mother for two nights in exchange for forgiving certain tenant debts.

But when Luigi comes to the apartment, he’s brought his aunt Maria (Maria Cali) as well as his mother, Marina (Marina Cacciotti). Soon after, Gianni’s doctor friend Marcello (Marcello Ottolenghi) pays a call, asking if he can leave his mother, Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza), for “just one night.” The four women, each with her own strong personality, prove a handful, but Di Gregorio’s approach is true to life, avoiding platitudes or exaggeration as he spins a warm-hearted, humorous tale.

The helmer refuses to fetishize aging, yet he doesn’t ignore its ravages, either. Though obviously not professional thesps, these gals bring something ineffably genuine to their roles –Sforza, in particular, has an unassuming naturalness and a great sense of comic timing.

Low wattage in the interiors may have saved electricity bills but also capture the invariably penumbral lighting inside Italian homes during the August heat. Camerawork is fluid without any bells and whistles, while a light hand with the music prevents the sweetness from welling up and overwhelming this “Lunch’s” balanced subtlety.

Mid-August Lunch

Italy

Production

A Fandango Distribuzione release of an Archimede production, in collaboration with RAI Cinema. (International sales: Fandango Portobello Sales, London.) Produced by Matteo Garrone. Directed, written by Gianni Di Gregorio, from a story by Di Gregorio, Simone Riccardini.

Crew

Camera (color), Gian Enrico Bianchi; editor, Marco Spoletini; music, Ratchev & Carratello; production designer, Susanna Cascella; costume designer, Silvia Polidori; sound (Dolby Digital), Filippo Porcari; artistic direction, Massimo Gaudioso. Reviewed at Politecnico Fandango, Rome, Aug. 22, 2008. (In Venice Film Festival -- Critics' Week.) Running time: 75 MIN.

With

Valeria De Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Cali, Grazia Cesarini Sforza, Alfonso Santagata, Luigi Marchetti, Marcello Ottolenghi, Petre Rosu, Gianni Di Gregorio.
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