The subject of elder care is rarely legitimately addressed or explored in American film, perhaps because creative types see what a third rail it is in politics (prescription drug benefits! death panels!) and just figure, Jesus, why would I want to get involved in that? Multi-hyphenate Gianni Di Gregorio (below right) wades into the breach, though, with Mid-August Lunch, a movie of gentle rhythms and deadpan amusements built around a dutiful adult son's attempts to placate a group of feisty ladies.
Starring in his directorial debut, and drawing upon events from his own life, Di Gregorio places himself at the center of a trying Roman holiday. The plot? Armed with only wine and a fatalistic sense of humor, middle-aged Gianni resides with his 93-year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis), a fallen aristocrat, in their cramped apartment. His condo co-op debts are mounting, but building manager Luigi makes Gianni a proposition — if he looks after his mother (Marina Cacciotti) during Ferragosto (Italy's biggest summer holiday), Luigi will wipe the charges clear. Gianni wearily accedes, but then Luigi also shows up with an aunt (Maria Cali), and soon Gianni's doctor unloads his own mother (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) upon him as well. Can Gianni juggle the at-odds dietary concerns and fickle personalities of such lively grand dames?
Di Gregorio, co-writer of the very different Gomorrah, possesses a warm, unruffled charisma that goes a long way toward helping ease one into the sleepy tone around which this delicately balanced comedy of manners is constructed. The leathery De Franciscis is amusing too, carping over the gift of a bundt cake by noting that it came covered by a hand towel, and isolating herself in her room after quickly deciding these interlopers don't interest her. Watching the movie I was reminded of a truth I witnessed in my own grandmother — that settled ways and comfortable routines can be fundamentally misread by sensitive souls as more personal judgments — and the unspoken corollary to that: that we always say we want the best care for our aging parents, but the reality is that it often entails challenges entirely unrelated to immediate medical concerns.
There's no grand drama or payoff to Mid-August Lunch — this is essentially Polaroid-type, snapshot cinema, in which Gianni juggles and tries, and nothing exists outside the carefully prescribed boundaries of meal time, pillow fluffiness, control of the television and dietary concerns. That fact, as much if not more so than its Italian roots, may automatically limit the film's audience. But there is truth here, and in truth there is always some value. (Zeitgeist, unrated, 76 minutes)