They just want to have fun
by Jason Blair
MID-AUGUST LUNCH (Pranzo di ferragosto): Directed by Gianni Di Gregorio. Written by Gregorio and Simone Riccardini. Cinematography, Gian Enrico Bianchi. Music, Ratchev and Carratello. Starring Gregorio, Valeria De Francisis and Maria Cali. Zeitgeist Films, 2010. Unrated. 72 minutes.
Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) is a lazy man. A typical day might find him drifting through his neighborhood before touching down at the local wine and cheese shop, where the proprietor might advance him credit to purchase a couple bottles of Chablis. Mid-August Lunch, which is charmingly low-key about Gianni, actually takes great pains to establish him as a likable underachiever, if someone who’s not above a little dumpster diving for a stray piece of furniture. A bachelor in middle age, he resembles Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach, particularly with his hooded, hound dog eyes, and though his debts are mounting he seems devoted to experiencing the world as gently as possible. That, and taking care of his 93-year-old mother, with whom he shares a spacious apartment.
As the film opens, the apartment manager arrives with disturbing news: After three years, it’s time for Gianni to pay his rent or move out. But in the uncanny way of Mid-August Lunch, a film in which small gestures hint at large objects beneath the surface, we’re actually witnessing a shakedown. If Gianni will look after the man’s mother for a couple of days, all his debts will be erased. When Gianni’s doctor proposes the same solution to resolve his unpaid medical bills, we start to wonder if some karmic reprisal isn’t headed for Gianni, a man about whom we know very little. What in fact ensues is a beautifully paced 48 hours in the life of a man who, while not without pride, isn’t above a little babysitting work, particularly when those babies are his elders. Over the course of the film, the women try his patience here and there, but a movie in which nothing much happens somehow turns into a quietly memorable portrait of a lifestyle. As a mild farce, Lunch is distant a cousin to The Big Lebowski, both of which warmly celebrate some of the laziest men worldwide.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Mid-August Lunch is how dissimilar it is to the film that proceeded it. The film is written and directed by (and stars one of) the writers behind the recent Italian crime masterpiece Gomorra, a film that makes the Sopranos crew look like the Bad News Bears. Stylistically and thematically, the two films couldn’t be more divergent; the only grit in Lunch is the sand between Gianni’s toes. In fact, Lunch is of a piece with a recent trend of fine but quiet character studies, from Fish Tank to Greenberg to Mother (and, to a lesser degree, Crazy Heart). There seems to be a movement afoot to imbue drama with a naturalistic, almost documentary feel, one reliant on very strong performances within almost invisible story arcs. When practiced at a high level, as in Lunch, the style is a welcome antidote to the hyperkinetic Hollywood production. I wouldn’t want to live by these low-calorie treats alone — we all need to gorge on a good thriller now and then — but they’re a welcome break as we head into blockbuster season.
Mid-August Lunch opens Friday, May 14, at the Bijou.