Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: "Mid-August Lunch"

I'd love to be a European, at least for the summer. Our chums across the pond know what it means to get away: Their vacations last a month. Sometimes two. And everybody takes off at once.

This means whole regions and industries close up shop while everyone's away, which leads to a problem: What are all the devoted Italian sons to do with their elderly mothers while they're on vacation?

"Mid-August Lunch" is a gentle observational comedy about a middle-aged man stuck looking after four old women for Ferragosto, a traditional Italian holiday. Held on Aug. 15, centered around a meal with religious overtones -- isn't every holiday in Italy? -- Ferragosto is a national excuse to stretch a long weekend into a full-out escape.

Except Gianni isn't going anywhere. He looks after his aged mother, and they have serious financial troubles. The electricity bill has not been paid in three years. The condominium membership wants to kick them out over uncollected fees.

The administrator offers a deal: He'll forgive most of their debts if they take in his mother for Ferragosto. He doesn't bother to mention that his aunt will be joining them, too. Then the family doctor begs them to look after his mother as well.

Suddenly it's Gianni stuck in a hot apartment with four squabbling old ladies, toiling away in the kitchen and acting as peacemaker when their conflicts crescendo.

Gianni is played by Gianni de Gregorio, a veteran screenwriter also making his debut as a director. Handsome, 60-ish and with a put-upon charm, Gianni is an affable host. He may resent his lot, and lubricate his complaining with a copious amount of white wine, but he takes his role as caretaker seriously.

Like de Gregorio, the female actresses -- Valeria De Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Calì, Grazia Cesarini Sforza -- all use their given names for their characters. They're acting novices, too, which lends their bickering and rambling chats an unforced charm.

Plot-wise, there isn't much to speak of: Gianni's mother and the administrator's mother ensue a power play over control of the one barely-working television, and the doctor's mother has strict dietary restrictions that she treats as an annoyance.

At 73 minutes, "Mid-August Lunch" is agreeable light fare, pleasing to look at and drink in. It's a pleasant little cinematic aperitif, to cleanse the palate and refresh us. That it does.

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