The documentary Babies, which is about just what it says and was strategically released in time for Mother’s Day, gives past, present and prospective parents of infants plenty to coo about. Yet, in a graying nation, the Italian import Mid-August Lunch could be a more fitting film to see with your mom.
Mid-August Lunch comes to Burlington on Saturday as part of the Food & Wine Film Festival Merrill’s Roxy Cinema is holding in conjunction with Seven Days’ Vermont Restaurant Week. Given that it’s a small slice of life with a forgettable English title, it might not have reached our screens otherwise.
While Mid-August Lunch takes place in a generally recognized diner’s paradise — Rome — and features scenes of people cooking and eating, don’t go expecting a hardcore “food film.” If you want sumptuous scenes of Old World matriarchs prepping an aestival feast, you won’t find them here.
For one thing, most of the cooking in the film is performed by Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio, also the film’s director), a soft-spoken middle-aged bachelor who lives with his aged mother (Valeria De Franciscis). In an American film, we’d probably be prompted to pity or ridicule Gianni for his failure to launch a life of his own. Here, we admire his care-giving skills — he’s wonderfully patient with his regal, snobbish parent — while noticing that he’s only a few steps up from a deadbeat. He’s in debt to his condo association for renovations and to his friendly neighborhood wine seller for the bottles of white that he guzzles while he’s cooking.
But Gianni and his mom aren’t in dire straits; besides the social safety net, they can rely on the web of sociability that defines an old-fashioned neighborhood. When Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) comes to collect the missing condo fees, he offers to erase the debt if Gianni will take his own elderly mother over the holiday. (The generic “mid-August” of the English title is actually Ferragosto, or August 15, the traditional summer break for Europeans and Catholic Feast of the Assumption.)
Next, Gianni’s doctor friend (Marcello Ottolenghi) makes a house call that ends with him dropping off his mom for a sleepover, too. Add Alfonso’s aunt to the mix, and you have four fairly demanding nonagenarians and one full-time home cook who’s reaching ever more frequently for his wine.
I’m glad to say this is not a film about how cute and childlike old people are, or about the wisdom younger folks can glean from them. The four women are just people, each with her distinct foibles: One won’t stick to her diet, one still carries on about every man she sees like a love-struck teenager, and so on. American viewers may wish they were stronger characters with more to say: These women aren’t the activist, articulate elders we like to celebrate over here. They don’t offer zingers like Betty White, and they seem to live primarily in the past. Their main concern in the present is what’s for lunch.
But then, that’s Gianni’s focus, too. This is a film where purchasing fresh fish on a holiday, straight from a local angler, counts as a major triumph. I wish Di Gregorio had written a meatier screenplay, if you will, one that delved deeper into his characters’ lives. But it’s still possible to enjoy a modest movie about modest people for whom a glass of Chianti or a casserole oozing mozzarella is enough to grant a measure of happiness.