Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto)


Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto)

Lunch is served.

(Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria di Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Cali, Grazia Cesarini Sforza, Alfonso Santagata, Luigi Marchetti, Marcello Ottolenghi, Petre Rosu, Biagio Ursitti. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

Holidays are times to be with family. This is a fairly universal concept; no matter whether you are from India or Indochina or Italy or Indianapolis, this holds true – at least, most of the time.

Gianni (di Gregorio) is a middle-aged slacker. He is chronically unemployed and spends most of his time taking care of his demanding mother (di Franciscis), reading to her from Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” while she constantly interrupts about questions about D’Artagnan’s physical appearance. Apparently, his hooked nose would be a deal-killer for her. Mama has the look of Sylvia Miles in her Beetlejuice appearance, three years after she died. No, it’s not a particularly flattering look.

Gianni is a good-natured sort, friendly with everybody and well-known for being an excellent home chef. However, he hasn’t paid the rent for his ramshackle Rome apartment (although it is identified in the subtitles as a condominium, a flat is what it is) in months, his electric bill hasn’t been paid in three years. Alfonso (Santagata), the resident’s association administrator, comes to Gianni’s apartment to talk about the situation. Both Gianni and his mother are terrified.

However, Alfonso has a solution. It is a holiday weekend in Italy, Ferragosto – a Catholic holiday marking the occasion of Mary’s ascension into heaven. It is the middle of August and the heat is oppressive. Most sensible Romans head out of town to find a place in the north or at least in the mountains or by the sea where relief from the oppressive heat of late summer Italy can be found. There’s no question but that Gianni and his mama will be spending the holiday at home but Alfonso needs someone to watch over his own mama Marina (Cacciotti). If Gianni would be willing to do that for a few days, Alfonso would see to it that his debts would be forgiven. Gianni is not in a position to refuse, despite his misgivings.

The next day, Alfonso bring over his mama – and as an extra added bonus, his Aunt Maria (Cali). Gianni is mortified at the extra guest but after Alfonso gives him a little extra for expenses, he reluctantly relents. Mama puts on her best face and greets the guests with as much hospitality as she can muster which admittedly isn’t very much. She prefers isolation to socialization and makes sure Gianni knows it.

Afterwards, the family doctor (Ottolenghi) comes by to examine Mama – and Gianni, who thinks he might have a hernia (he just has a hernia of the head, as the doc exclaims). For services rendered, the doctor implores Gianni to take in his mother overnight for the holiday because he has to work at the hospital. Gianni, past the point of resisting, agrees. Why not? What difference is one more old hen going to make for the chicken coop?

All four women have strong personalities. Marina likes to smoke and get drunk, and when she’s drunk she makes a pass at Gianni. The doctor’s mother, Grazia (Sforza), has a restricted diet which she breaks at every turn, particularly with the macaroni casserole that Gianni and Maria are making which is slathered with cheese and tomato sauce, both of which were specifically forbidden by Grazia’s doctor son. Mama wants to dine alone and have as little to do with the unwanted guests as possible. Maria disagrees with everything. Gianni is at wit’s end. How is he going to manage this terrible holiday?

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. It is charming, heartwarming and deeply Italian; I almost guarantee you that you’ll be craving a nice plate of pasta and a glass of good wine by the time the movie’s over. Di Gregorio, who wrote, starred in and directed Mid-August Lunch, based the movie on his own experiences caring for his elderly mother.

Most of the actors are non-professionals, many of them personal acquaintances of di Gregorio. In fact, the apartment that the movie mostly takes place in is di Gregorio’s own home. How much more personal can a film be?

The movie has a sweet quality that will improve your mood from beginning to end. It is also laugh-out-loud funny with a humor that is sly and earthy in places, gentle and sweet in others. Being an Italian film, there is a shot of someone riding a Vespa down the street which is apparently some sort of national mandate.

The only drawback here is Gianni himself. He seems to drift aimlessly through the movie in a pleasant haze of white wine (which he consumes by the gallon). He resembles the late Jerry Ohrbach crossed with Roberto Benigni from a facial standpoint and shuffles through most of the film wearing flip flops and an amiable smile. While it’s difficult to really relate to Gianni, it’s still pleasant enough to spend time with him.  

Mid-August Lunch has won several festival awards, including the prestigious Venice Film Festival’s award for Best Film. While American critics haven’t really come on board this movie for the most part, that’s a bit of a crying shame. This is the kind of movie that really has no other aspiration other than to make its audience feel better collectively and perhaps make a gentle comment on aging. Regardless, this is one lunch that I advise you not to miss.

REASONS TO GO: A charming and heartwarming slice of life. While there are many laugh-out-loud moments, you will come away feeling better than when you went in.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni drifts a bit too much to be a compelling lead.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild sensuality in one scene and a good deal of wine drinking, but otherwise perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Di Gregorio also wrote the bloody mafia epic Gomorrah.

HOME OR THEATER: Having already received its New York release in mid-March, this will be decidedly difficult to see in theaters (unless it’s playing in a local film festival). However, this intimate comedy will work very nicely on home video.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Dynamite Warrior

13 Tzameti


13 Tzameti

All right, all right, we'll film the damn thing in black and white!

(Palm Pictures) Georges Babluani, Pascal Bongard, Aurelien Recoing, Fred Ulysse, Nicolas Pignon, Vania Vilers, Olga Legrand, Christopher van de Velde, Agustin Legrand, Jo Prestia. Directed by Gela Babluani

Desperation can make us do extraordinary things. We will do whatever it takes to get out of the situation we’re in, risk anything – even our own lives.

Sebastien (Georges Babluani), a contractor barely making ends meet, accepts a job in a rundown old home for an immigrant Georgian couple. When he accidentally puts a hole in their roof, he overhears a conversation indicating that there is a package that promises great riches. When the Georgian owner dies of a drug overdose, Sebastien decides to take the package for himself.

It leads him to a dilapidated hotel in the middle of nowhere where a game is going on, a dangerous game that the French authorities would very much like to infiltrate and stop but a game that delivers to its victors great riches. Sebastien has no idea what he’s getting himself into from the get-go and by the time he realizes what’s going on, getting out is not an option. In fact, his only option is to win.

I’m deliberately leaving the plot summary very vague, because the less you know about this movie, the more enjoyment you’re likely to take out of it. It’s well-plotted and when you look back on it, you realize that the entire movie switched gears completely near the middle of the film, but so expertly is it done that not only do you not notice it but it feel very organic within the framework of the movie.

Gela Babluani won the Luigi de Laurentiis award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival for the best first feature by a director, as well as the Grand Jury Prize for world cinema at the Sundance Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. A Georgian immigrant himself (whose brother plays Sebastien in the film), he has delivered a marvelous film, full of suspense and tension from the opening moments to the very last shot.

The mood is enhanced by the black and white photography, serving to make this an almost film noir kind of atmosphere, which is almost Hitchcockian in its simplicity yet with an elegant Gallic permeation that gives it an extra little twist.

Georges Babluani is marvelous as Sebastien. He is a bit on the passive side, mainly because terrible things tend to happen when he takes chances. He is neither a coward nor a hero but somewhere in between, an ordinary man driven by circumstances he doesn’t quite understand into extraordinary conditions. He behaves much the same as I think I’d behave in similar circumstances.

The game that he is forced to play (I won’t reveal much of it so as not to ruin the powerful effect of the movie) is stark and brutal, and is filmed in an almost industrial manner. Orders are barked with military precision and shots of stark, bare light bulbs reinforce the utilitarian feel. While there is a great deal of violence, there isn’t a whole lot of gore, at least not in the traditional sense. This isn’t a Saw movie except in only the barest sense of sadism in the creation of the game itself.

The thing that is the most extraordinary is that the game depicted here actually exists in France, and apparently it has been going on for some time. The movie is about the circumstances that would lead someone to play in a game with such high stakes, and in that sense the movie is wildly successful. If I had a quibble, there are just two; the people running the game are depicted as almost cliches and in some ways that makes them more terrifying because we don’t really get too much of an insight to them, but in the end the film would have been better if we had. Secondly, the incredible suspense of the first two thirds of the movie breaks down a little in the third and the ending is a bit anti-climactic.

Beyond that, however, this is a terrific movie that is well-worth seeing. Some might find the starkness off-putting and there are some who abhor both subtitles and black and white, but if you get past those prejudices, you will find a movie of extraordinary power and substance well worth your effort in getting to know better.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous air of tension and suspense filmed in beautiful black and white, giving it a feeling of a Hitchcock film noir with a French sophistication.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie isn’t able to maintain the suspenseful tone of the first third, and some of the characters surrounding the game are tissue-thin.

FAMILY VALUES: Mature subject matter and some scenes of shocking violence make this a no-no for child viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tzameti is the number 13 in Georgian, so the title is literally “13 Thirteen.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprisingly bountiful amount of interesting extras, like an interview with someone who actually participated in one of these underground shooting matches and survived, as well as a short film by Gene Laufenberg called The Sunday Game that fits nicely into the overall themes of 13 Tzameti. Finally, there’s an interview with Babluani discussing life as an immigrant in France. Overall, a very strong collection of extras, a definite keeper.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Lemon Tree