ND/NF: Houseguests from a polite hell in Mid-August Lunch
From Italian writer/director Gianni DiGregorio (perhaps best known for his screenplay adaptation of last year’s Italian mafioso film Gomorrah) comes Mid-August Lunch, a sprightly comedy (almost Shakespearean in its farcical scope) that blends the viewer’s empathy for rock-and-hard-place bad luck with a bit of charming sentimentality. This film isn’t the gritty Italy of Gomorrah, but rather the small-town communion Italy eternally drenched in summer sun.
Gianni (played by writer/director DiGregorio, a one-man movie-making placeholder in the tradition of Clint Eastwood), for all intents and purposes, is a sad-sack…. He’s behind on rent, has no outlook to pay it on time, and can’t confide his financial woes to his elderly mother, with whom he lives. He’s not without hope, though: his landlord offers to forgive him some of the back pay (and even a key to the building elevator) if Gianni wouldn’t mind putting up the landlord’s mother for a weekend while he is away. Gianni certainly agrees, but the arrangement quickly snowballs…. Not only does the landlord bring his mother, but also his elderly aunt, and all Gianni can do is grin and bear it. And that he does, even more so when his best friend leaves town…. and needs a place for his mother to stay as well.
Gianni’s goodwill and hospitality makes him a one-man host, chef, and maid…. but not without a glass of white wine for himself at the ready. The screenplay is almost aggressively insular to Gianni’s third-person point of view, and this gives the viewer an interesting warm-up to the peculiarities of his weekend houseguests. These ladies, at first humble and grandmotherly (one brings Gianni a cake as gift, wrapped in a bidet towel), soon exhibit enough orneriness to keep things interesting. They gossip, they throw tantrums, they overeat and overdrink, and do it all through the grateful smiles of prudent houseguests.
Gianni’s mother (Valeria De Franciscis), almost playfully dependent on her dutiful son, is always ready to drop some gossipy complaints about their new houseguests to him, yet is sunny and polite to the point of saccharine. (Gianni’s mother, who old age has not treated terribly well, sports a lioness bouffant of a blonde wig against a face so leather-worn and oversunned that she could easily pass as a grotesquerie out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.)
Mid-August Lunch, though, in a way feels almost too easy; the beats on which the story unfolds are cute but not complicated, and I felt that a lot of the tension in a comedy like this came as unsurprising and almost typical of the situation established. In a way, Gianni is the dope who can’t win and can’t say no (a similar comparison, although a bit out-sized, would be Ben Stiller’s character in Meet the Parents), and there’s only so much layering a character like this can have without forcing the story to sacrifice its levity. Whereas the story doesn’t exactly conform to a formula, it does carry with it the dull glint of being derivative…. yet this is a small price to pay for a film that at times is so effortlessly charming.