by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Roman Summer


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 21 November 2008

 

Pranzo di Ferragosto

Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

Gianni di Gregorio's film takes place in Rome at the time of the annual national holiday of the Feast of the Assumption, when the natives, or most of them, have decamped to the beach or hills, and just a few forlorn tourists wander the sweltering, deserted streets. Only the old, the poor, and the eccentric remain in Rome's near-empty apartment houses, one of which, in Trastevere, is the setting for Pranzo di Ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch), an artful, thought-provoking, realistic yet gently comic film about old age and the travails of a dutiful son living a life indefinitely suspended while he cares for his aged mother.

The film was the surprise hit of this year's Venice Film Festival, and was shown in the International Critic's Week sidebar category for first films. The fifty-nine-year-old writer and director, who also acts in the film alongside a largely amateur cast, won the Silver Lion for Best First Film. In his acceptance speech he described himself as "un esordiente stagionato" (a seasoned beginner); though little known outside the industry, di Gregorio was one of the screenwriters on Matteo Garrone's Gomorra (awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier this year).

The Venice prize brings with it free film stock from Kodak and $100,000 (Pranzo di Ferragosto cost € 50,000).

The story is based in reality: di Gregorio did end up caring for his domineering widowed mother. He attributes his survival to "alcohol and psychotherapy". In the summer of 2000 the administrator of the block where they were living offered to waive some of the management charges they owed in exchange for looking after his own mother over the mid-August holiday. His dignity affronted, di Gregorio refused, but the seed of the scenario was planted. In the film Gianni accepts. The administrator duly delivers his mother, plus a previously unmentioned aunt. None of the old ladies much relish each other's company. Then a fourth arrives, parked by Gianni's doctor friend (another creditor), who is working a night shift.

After initial auditions, di Gregorio abandoned the idea of using professional actors and recruited a quartet of old ladies in their eighties and nineties, none of whom had ever acted before. On explaining to the production team that all they needed now was a middle-aged man, more or less an alcoholic, who had lived with his mother for years, "all eyes", the director records, "gravely fell on me". The performances of the whole cast are so natural and unforced that the film sometimes seems like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. But it has a proper narrative -which was apparently adjusted as filming progressed. The actors had no idea how the story would end, and their genuine innocence contributes to an amusing and plausibly spontaneous denouement.

The characters come into conflict with each other, then find ways of compromising, their sociability reawakened. It is a pleasure to share their new zest for life. At the same time, di Gregorio, whose Gianni displays the bemused patience of a saint, avoids sentimentality. The film goes on general release on both sides of the Atlantic next year. There are plans for an English-language remake and a stage version. But the delicate balance achieved by the original will surely prove difficult to reproduce.


First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016