It’s August and time to watch a movie that’s as life-affirming as “Babette’s Feast” (1987). Like that film, “Mid-August Lunch” (2009) is also about food—specifically, a feast day known in Italy as Ferragosto, which comes during the height of the country’s summer holiday.
Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio, who also directs the film) is a sixty-ish bachelor who lives with his 93-year-old mother in Rome. Mother and son have fallen on hard times and find themselves behind on their bills. Help arrives with a visit from his condominium’s property manager, who offers to reduce his overdue maintenance—but only if Gianni will take his elderly mother for two days while he and his family go on vacation.
Gianni agrees, even though his own mother finds the idea of hosting even a temporary boarder below her. When the manager shows up, however, he has brought not only his mother but also a woman known as Zia Maria (Aunt Mary), whom he also fobs off on the chagrined bachelor. Gianni’s chagrin is further tweaked when, looking down from his balcony, he sees the man getting into a sports car with a young mistress.
Gianni’s two houseguests are soon joined by a third woman, the mother of Gianni’s doctor (her caretaker has gone on holiday). Gianni now finds himself with four prickly, independent women of different temperaments whom he must keep happy, secure, and fed. In the course of 24 hours, there are squabbles over the TV, the agent’s feisty mother disappears late at night for a drink and smoke at a sleazy bar, and the doctor’s mother—on a very strict diet—is caught at 2 a.m. binging on pasta and sauce Zia Maria has made. The harried but solicitous Gianni (always a glass of white wine within reach) makes up their beds and serves them at table. He also brews chamomile tea laced with a few sleeping pills.
What makes this hilarious and poignant movie (the winner of several prestigious festival prizes) so good is that the women are amateur actors, and their banter and snarky comments (many ad-libbed) are delivered with complete credibility and perfect timing. Theirs is the plight of the elderly. They feel out of sorts in the modern world. Their lives have gotten smaller and their battles over small things fiercer. In their more harmonious moments, the women agree that all they have left in life are memories—of husbands, grandparents, and past holidays. In a sense, they are waiting to die.
On the day when Gianni—to his great relief—is scheduled to turn them over to their families, he reaches deep down, canvassing a deserted Rome for wine and fresh fish to make his elderly guests a Ferragosto feast. In this captivating scene he gives them a new memory to cherish.
On a final note, proving that life is better than fiction, Valeria De Franciscis, who plays Gianni’s mother, went on to make two more movies before dying in 1914 at the age of 98.