Writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio still lives with his 93-year-old mama Valeria, who stars with him in "Mid-August Lunch" (Pranzo di Ferragosto), shot in the apartment they share in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood. The film will play New York City's Film Forum, March 17-30, and then select theaters nationwide.
The slow-paced story unfolds over the weekend of Ferragosto, the peak of the Italian summer, when almost everyone flees to the beach or countryside—except for Gianni. He can't ditch his mother, of course, and suddenly finds himself caring and cooking for three other mamas. It all starts when the building manager makes Gianni an offer he can't refuse: late rental payments will be forgiven if Gianni lets the manager's mama sleep over.
I caught an advance screening of the bittersweet film and enjoyed its subtle revelations about everyday life in Rome and generational dynamics. Out of groceries, Gianni speeds through Rome's deserted streets on his motorino and winds up buying fish just caught by an immigrant stationed alongside the Tiber River. Gianni tends to speak to the mamas with cajoling phrases typically used with kids (encouraging one to "fai la brava" (be good) and offering another "una carotina" (a little carrot)). The stubborn mamas—non-professional actors who go by their real names—each try to assert themselves against Gianni, with some funny results (the kind that make you smile, not laugh out loud).
In a Q&A; after yesterday's screening at the Italian Cultural Institute, chef and TV host Lidia Bastianich shared her reactions. Lidia, too, lives with her mother, and she recalled her own Ferragosto holidays as a little girl in northern Italy, where her family would picnic with fresh meats and lots of wine. For her, there was water mixed with vinegar and sugar.
When asked about food's role in the film, which culminates with a big, fancy Ferragosto lunch, Lidia reflected that the universal need to eat is disarming: we lower our defenses when we sit down to share food at the table, an act that also feeds our need for companionship. This message comes through in "Mid-August Lunch," which adds nuance to the stereotypes that Italians love their food and their mamas.