Thursday, 28 May 2009

Mid-August Lunch (Satyajit Ray Award)

The other night at the BFI we were lucky enough to see writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio receive the Satyajit Ray Award for his delightful film Pranzo di Ferragusto (Mid-August Lunch).

The film is the slight but utterly charming story of Gianni (played by Di Gregorio), a 50-something bachelor who – usually with a glass of wine in his hand - lives in Rome with his spirited 93-year-old mother.

Deep in debt, Gianni is forced by the building manager to look after the latter’s mother over the August holiday of Ferragusto. However, the situation soon escalates and he finds himself being run ragged by four very imposing old ladies.

One of the beauties of the film is its sensitive and respectful treatment of old age. The ladies who take over Gianni’s flat aren’t the decrepit and embarrassing zombies so beloved of the youth-obsessed media. Instead, they’re women who have been given cast-iron personalities by decades of experience.

Di Gregorio – one of the scriptwriters on Naples gangster drama Gomorrah - said that he’d been trying to sell the story for around 10 years, but – “fortunately” – no-one wanted to take on such a tough sell. However, Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone agreed to produce the film (at a very low budget) and Di Gregorio stepped in as director and actor, as well as writer.

The low budget becomes a virtue, as the use of natural light, found locations and – especially – non-professional actors combine with mobile camerawork and leisurely pacing to create an irresistibly naturalistic tone that perfectly depicts the stifling summer heat.

As the writer-director confirmed in his Q&A, there’s a strong autobiographical element to the work. He lived alone with his mother – in the flat used in the film - for the last 10 years of her life. During that time, he became immersed in the world of his mother and her friends, seeing their vitality as well as their vulnerability.

From a strictly screenwriting perspective, I guess this is a somewhat extreme lesson in ‘writing what you know’. From his experience, Di Gregorio has crafted a deeply personal but totally accessible film that uses dry humour and strong characterisation to bolster a minimal plot.

It’s impossible not to empathise with the hapless Gianni as he finds himself drawn into a battle of wills he doesn’t have a prayer of winning. His gestures and choices reveal a great deal about him; every time he reaches for his wine glass in a moment of quiet stress, you sense his turmoil.

However, Di Gregorio said that the ladies he recruited to act in the film (from local old people’s centres) refused to take much direction, so much of the script went out the window. Instead, he tried to guide them where he wanted each scene to go, and then let them largely improvise. The result is totally natural performances that are utterly convincing.

Di Gregorio was a charming interviewee, beaming with gratitude at his award and the reception he received. His film is a small (75 mins) and delicate gem that deserves a much wider audience than it’s likely to receive.

Production notes (PDF)

Interview with Gianni Di Gregoria (

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