I’m clearly the world’s most useless blogger. Although I’ve been thinking (and writing) a lot about food and film recently, this post is long overdue. And as we’re well into summer and approaching the middle of August, I couldn’t resist the urge to write a little about Pranzo di Ferragosto/Mid-August Lunch (2008), which I watched for the second time last week.
Food, age and appetite are themes at the heart of writer/actor and director Gianni di Gregorio’s funny, touching and affectionate tale of a dutiful son who finds himself spending his mid-August bank holiday looking after four elderly ladies. Gianni (di Gregorio) lives in a Rome apartment with his widowed mother Valeria (Valeria De Franciscis). Valeria is a strong-willed nonagenarian, and although she and her son have fallen on tough times she firmly believes in keeping up appearances, from her impeccably styled wig and carefully-applied make-up, through to her conviction that is it unacceptable for guests to eat in the kitchen rather than the dining room.
The film opens two days before Ferragosto, the Italian August bank holiday which falls on August 15. Rome has emptied as its inhabitants have made off for the coast or countryside. No such escape is possible for Gianni and his mother. As her full-time carer and cook we learn almost immediately that has been unable to work and is struggling for cash. He buys wine and tonic water on credit at the local store, but doesn’t let being 40 euros in the red stop him enjoying ‘a nice glass of white wine’ while he shops (when he asks what he’s drinking, the shopkeeper tells him it’s a Ribolla Gialla).
When Gianni gets home, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), the administrator for his block of flats is waiting for him. Like the rest of the city, Alfonso is simply dying to get away to the countryside, but there’s just one tiny obstacle –he doesn’t want to leave his mother alone. Alfonso offers to clear some of Gianni’s debts if he will take care of his mother for two nights. Although it’s the last thing that he wants to do, Gianni eventually agrees. Over pasta that night, he and Valeria agree that she will swallow her pride, make the best of a difficult situation and welcome their guest.
The next day, Alfonso arrives with Marina (Marina Caciotti), his rather over-bearing and blowsy mother, who comes bearing a home-made ring cake (draped with a bidet towel, Valeria observes with distaste). Unexpectedly, Alfonso has also brought an even older lady, his aunt Maria (Maria Cali). You can feel Gianni’s sense of trepidation – has aunt Maria just come to drop off Marina? Of course she hasn’t, and Alfonso bribes Gianni with further financial incentives to add his aunt to the pensioners’ sleepover. Gianni makes feeble efforts to protest but succumbs when hard cash is handed over. He makes lunch (escalopes and asparagus in sauce) for the ladies but declines to join them in the dining room, instead preferring to eat his meal quietly in the kitchen with a bottle of wine and a cigarette.
An afternoon visit from Marcello (Marcello Ottolegnhi), the family doctor, relieves Gianni of his fear that he has a hernia, but results in yet another elderly mother being deposited for the night when Marcello asks if Gianni will look after his mother while he works a night shift at the hospital. Returning with Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza), Gianni worries what he’s let himself in for when Marcello hands over a long list of medication she must take at prescribed times and strict instructions on:
‘Foods which must absolutely be avoided. They’re poison for mum. Milk, cheese and dairy products. She’s intolerant, she gets terrible headaches. Note – no tomato sauces in the evenings. Cooked tomatoes give her an acid stomach and she can’t sleep.’
Grazia nods in patient acquiescence but is immediately excited when she goes inside and hears that Gianni and Maria have been preparing a pasta al forno. ‘I love pasta al forno’ she wistfully declares.
The film poignantly but irreverently deals with old age and how it affects both the elderly and those around them, particularly in the Italian context where family, and the bond between a mother and son, are sacrosanct. Italians are obviously known for their love of good food and wine and here it becomes a powerful signifier. Food, and to have an appetite for food, equates with having an appetite for life, no matter your age. It also becomes the means by which the bonds of friendship and family are formed.
Grazia’s well-meaning son stops her having any fun and as soon as she is away from his watchful care hungrily tucks into mortadella ham and breadsticks while chatting with Aunt Maria (who, charmingly, dunks her breadstick in her wine and water). When Gianni discovers this he whips away the ham and bread, promising Grazia a ‘plate of cooked greens, plus some delicious carrots […] ‘steamed, delicious and very light’. These are clearly no match for pasta al forno. There is a satisfying crunch of the baked crust as Gianni serves up and I can well pity poor Grazia who eats sadly while Maria enjoys the baked pasta and rhapsodises over how good it is.
Maria is such an expert in pasta al forno that she even has an award for it from grandchildren (and is so proud of this that she sleeps with the award by her bed). She and Gianni have earlier been gently bickering over the preparation of pasta al forno – how much cheese should be added, how he hasn’t cut up the mozzarella adequately, how he’s bought the wrong type of pasta (she prefers to use sheets; he uses rigatoni). Experienced in dealing with demanding old ladies he gently bats away her criticism and silences her with a glass of wine and the suggestion to ‘let’s cut it [the cheese] with our hands, we’re almost like family’.
Other, more serious, bickering has been taking place as Valeria and Marina fight over custody of the television set. Valeria has ultimately triumphed, leading a sulky Marina to shut herself up in the dining room. Horrified at the idea of dining in the kitchen when they have guests, Valeria refuses to join Gianni, Maria and Grazia for dinner, instead insisting on having a tray in her room. Afterwards, repentant at her bad manners, Valeria invites Maria and Grazia to join her for camomile tea and television.
Meanwhile, fun-loving Marina sneaks out into the city for a drink and some man-hunting, only to be brought unwillingly back by Gianni (who she insists gives her a little kiss before she’ll go to sleep). He finally manages to puts her to bed and settles down in a deckchair on the balcony, the only place left to sleep. But then he notices the oven has been left on… Bursting in Grazia’s room he catches the old lady, fork mid-way to her mouth, tucking into the leftover tray of pasta al forno. His horror is palpable as he whips away the dish – ‘you’ve eaten all the pasta!’ he exclaims. What will be the terrible consequences of this late night indulgence? Sitting by her bed, Gianni watches over Grazia as she drifts into half sleep and dreams. Unlike the man-hungry Marina, Grazia’s longings and desires are gustatory in nature. She talks in her sleep about the food of her youth, dishes she is no longer allowed to eat: ‘They made tortellino in Bologna. And lasagne….’
When Gianni awakes the next morning, Grazia’s bed is empty. As he gets up and walks around the flat it is clear that some sort of miraculous transformation has taken place. It is Ferragosto. Harmony reigns. Crotchety Valeria is now happily making Aunt Maria try on hats; Grazia is in the kitchen reading Marina’s fortune. When they see Gianni the ladies demand their right to a Ferragosto lunch and Marina stuffs a wad of euros into Gianni’s hand and send him out shopping. Hardly anywhere is open so Gianni’s friend Viking takes him on his scooter to the river where they buy some freshly caught perch (or red mullet according to my DVD translation). After a quick plastic cup of wine with the fisherman, they ride back home and begin to make lunch. As Viking slices potatoes, Gianni prepares the fish and they construct a filetti di persico con patate with fresh rosemary and potatoes. Happily, there is no milk, cheese or tomatoes here to tease and torment Grazia.
The ladies meanwhile have been readying the dining room. The table is laid, the silver and glassware polished and there are fresh flowers in a vase.
As they drink sparking wine (perhaps an Asti, or maybe a Franciacorta?) they party toast their ‘lovely Ferragosto friendship’. The meal becomes a lovely, and lively, celebration of life, longevity and freedom. Even Gianni and Viking start to have a good time.
Ferragosto offers renewal as well as rest (it falls at the end of the harvest when people would have traditionally needed to recover after weeks of hard work), but a phonecall from Marcello, ready to come and collect Grazia, threatens to dismantle this newly established happy household…
For me, pasta al forno is the star dish of this film – it is constantly being discussed and we see it being prepared and eaten (including Grazia’s illicit midnight feast). Having watched Mid-August Lunch a couple of months ago, I knew that I would crave it when I decided to watch the film again last week. I duly bought pasta, tomatoes and mozzarella (I forgot mortadella) and ensured that I added enough cheese, and cooked the pasta al forno for long enough, to get that satisfying crunch as you break through the crusty top.
However, you may also feel like something a little lighter, particularly in the heat of August (it is 27 degrees as I type this), and the baked fish and potatoes which form the Ferragosto lunch perfectly combine a sense of occasion with a dish that won’t overwhelm. The DVD of Mid-August Lunch includes recipes for the two key dishes in the film as well as Gianni di Gregorio’s wine recommendations (Ribolla gialla from Fruili or Umbrian Montefalco for the pasta; Chablis or Ligurian Pigato for the fish). Until you have a chance to go out and buy the film, however, a simple recipe for baked fish and potatoes can be found here at Ciao Italia, just adapt by using perch or red mullet, swapping the thyme for rosemary, and (if a little bit of cheese is not problem) adding pesto to the layers:
Perhaps this would be an ideal meal to invite your granny, great aunt or elderly neighbour – or maybe all three – to?