It's the heart of the summer movie season, that time of the year when Hollywood tends to put away character development and honest emotions like winter clothes. Audiences seeking that kind of attachment have to rely on the indie films that find their way into theaters over the next few months, as well as imports designed to offer something different.
It's unlikely that many of this summer's sequels, retreads and superheroes will take as much time and effort to explore characters as does Mid-August Lunch, a full-course Italian meal that picked up several European film-award nominations last year, and now looks to make inroads against much bigger offerings—without the assistance of action figures or fast-food tie-ins.
Part of that rather obvious shift from the big blockbusters is the conscious decision by writer-director-star Gianni Di Gregorio to work with a cast of non-actors, performers who can't be concerned about their close-ups. And that attitude starts at the top: Di Gregorio, who stars as a middle-age man surrounded by debt (and his mother), has only appeared on-screen once before. He's primarily known as a screenwriter; Gomorrah, which he co-wrote—and which is an entirely different story in every way—was one of last year's most talked about international films.
Even though American audiences, by and large, wouldn't be able to tell if the actors in this film were seasoned veterans or not, the lack of polish is hard to miss. In many cases, that would be a backhanded compliment at best, but it makes Mid-August Lunch feel a lot more comfortable and lived-in, giving the impression that this truly is a slice of life.
The film's natural title is Pranzo di Ferragosto, relating to the major Italian holiday Ferragosto, which has been celebrated for thousands of years. It's kind of like a longer Thanksgiving: Everything shuts down, and families and friends get together. In this case, the family consists of a large group of, shall we say, boisterous Italian women. And like at your Thanksgiving, there are moments when you realize it's a good thing this holiday and these relatives only come once a year.
Already living with his mother because he can't get his head above water financially, Gianni is joined for the Ferragosto feast by the mother of his condominium manager, and her sister. That would be a full house, and it's certainly a cramped condo. Is Gianni just that nice of a guy? Well, no, not exactly.
Gianni does not have the means to pay his rent, and the landlord's bargain is to erase the debt if Gianni looks after the other women for a couple of days. It sounds simple enough at first, but the guest list also includes the mother of Gianni's doctor. That's a spicy meatball. It would be easy to play to the stereotypes of mothers and Italian women to go for cheap laughs, and while Mid-August Lunch certainly has laughs, they aren't forced or unnatural.
As the film progresses, Di Gregorio becomes more at ease with these characters, letting them move the story forward. And it becomes clear to us that this isn't entirely a comedy. But don't a lot of the greatest comedies find a way to get there through some hint of sadness?
We see why these women might be dropped off at the curb by their families, and it's not exactly happy, similar to the way John Candy would've spent his holiday on the road in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles even if Steve Martin hadn't come along.
Standing out among the cast is Valeria De Franciscis, who plays Gianni's mother. It's hard to imagine a more moving and energetic performance by a 94-year-old novice; that much living offers more than enough experience to lean on.
Mid-August Lunch doesn't have any explosions, and it doesn't grind to a halt to set up a sequel. There's really not a whole lot of "story" going on, except for the stories that are so easy to read in the memorable, weathered faces of the women who have all come together for one special holiday.
While this probably won't be remembered as one of the best films you'll see all year, it is a great departure from the stuff flooding the market for the next few months.