It’s nearing August 15th as Mid-August Lunch opens, and Rome is all but empty in anticipation of the Ferragosto holiday, a chance at one last, long, lazy celebration before summer’s end. Gianni—the hero of Mid-August Lunch, played by its writer-director, Gianni Di Gregorio, who co-wrote the decidedly different gangster epic Gomorrah—isn’t doing much celebrating this year, kept in town by tight finances and the need to care for his 93-year-old mother. The rest of the year looks like it’s about to take a turn for the worse when his building administrator shows up with a demand for back payment. But he has a counter-offer, too: Gianni’s debts will be forgiven if he agrees to take care of the administrator’s own elderly mother for a couple of days as well. In a corner, he has no choice but to agree. Then the deal gets more complicated when the administrator drops off his equally aged aunt. Finally, Gianni’s doctor asks for the same favor, leaving him in a hot, cramped apartment with four elderly women, each with demands, and personality quirks, all their own.
It’s a too-cute setup for a movie that doesn’t have much interest in being too cute. Or at least not suffocatingly cute. Di Gregorio’s film has plenty of gags about old ladies behaving badly—drinking too much, eating food forbidden by their diets, pouting—but it has more than easy laughs on its mind. As Di Gregorio’s character deals with a situation somewhere between a teenage sleepover and a women’s prison, the film quietly shifts away from being about his charges to being about him. Middle-aged, single, and dependent for company on a drinking buddy with whom he shares a spot outside a liquor store and a love for mocking tourists, Di Gregorio keeps finding subtle ways to show that Gianni’s begun to sense life has passed him by. His expression barely shifts as he listens to his mother explain he’s single but had prospects in the past. But it shifts enough to suggest an old hurt.
Over the course of the film, he only ventures outside his usual corner of Rome a little, but Di Gregorio’s careful performance suggests it means a lot, as does his time spent with all the old ladies, women whose passions have dimmed but a little but whose ability to act on those passions has withered quite a bit. Can he delay this future? Will he try? The film ends sweetly but leaves the main question unanswered. It’s a trifle, but a trifle that sticks.