(Article originally appeared on GreenCine Daily)
by Vadim Rizov
The arthouse isn't immune from peddling glorified YouTube cutesiness: earlier this year, Babies offered up viral‐adorable burbles on 35mm. (Cuteness on demand is nicely spoofed in Godard's new Film Socialisme, going from full-screen kitteh close‐up to the woman watching it; she meows, which is considerably less cute.) Similarly, the masses apparently love to watch sassy old folks being stylish and adorable, without any troublesome bodily failures getting in the way. Mid‐August Lunch, full of snippy old ladies and food porn, seemingly offers up more undemanding fare, and let's be clear: there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But Gianni di Gregorio's directorial debut is remarkably tough‐minded.
His most notable credit previously was for co‐writing Gomorrah (director Matteo Garrone personally financed this project in turn), a juxtaposition hard to reconcile, though it's really not that far off: everyone's dying pointlessly, with no visible relief in sight.
Mid‐August Lunch stars di Gregorio as Gianni, a wine‐swilling, debt‐swamped fiftysomething man taking care of his possessive mother (Valeria de Franciscis); di Gregorio shot the film in a family apartment, based on his own experiences in the '90s taking care of a now deceased mother he has described as "very possessive." Looking after her has meant giving up on a career, relationship or any hope of self‐advancement. Gianni's immediate pleasures are nicotine and booze, and any longer‐term gratification will have to be put off until after her death, which has been true long before the movie started.
This is grim territory to begin with, and the introduction of additional incapacitated, essentially homeless‐but‐for‐family women (left by feckless sons on holiday) doesn't make things any more adorable. While Gianni's troubles can't be blamed on Silvio Berlusconi or local corruption, his situation's one with no end but death in sight. There's one topical nod (the landlord takes a holiday with a blond young scamp, much like the self‐valorizing national leader Berlusconi), but clearly Gianni is more just a victim of smothering family expectations than, say, a failure of state-run healthcare.
Mid‐August Lunch unmercifully trains its eyes upon decaying elderly bodies. The shifting relationships between Gianni and the exponentially swelling number of elderly ladies he's charged with caring for over Ferragosto, as mutually pleasant as they can occasionally be, never suggest anything like parity.
For every moment of calm, Gianni pays over and over, corralling oft‐fractious and unrepentantly demanding women who are never willing to help out. His ability to look after the women always comes down to token monetary compensation, just enough to keep him sedated. We're watching a few days in the life of a man who long ago gave up on expecting anything for himself.
The experience of watching the film isn't nearly as grim as that last description: Gregorio's brief running time, avoidance of onscreen trauma (and pointed aversion from the worst of it) keeps the film firmly family‐friendly, even as it stares mortality dead‐on. Gianni always has to be perpetually available, but he gets to drink all day and make delicious food while hanging out with a guy who answers to "Viking." That's not precisely a rich and rewarding social whirl, but it's also not the worst place to be trapped.
Who's at fault when there is only one person to do the right thing? Is it even the right thing? The barbs are aimed back at everyone equally: sons too busy to look after their mothers and transferring the burden back onto the less fortunate, women who won't let said sons go (and are left at the hands of other sons unable to firmly walk away). Anger is palpable, if never expressed.
Not a film that'll make anyone cringe overly hard, its steely core is hard to overlook: beyond all the food and winsome accordions, Mid‐August Lunch contemplates the toll of taking care of the elderly, and concludes it's a steep climb unrelieved by goofing around. The cute moments are incidental, what sticks is the grind.
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