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A Stationary Feast: An Interview with ‘Mid-August Lunch’ star and director Gianni Di Gregorio

Di Gregorio in "Mid-August Lunch." Courtesty of Zeitgeist
by Dan Lybarger

Freshman director Gianni Di Gregorio’s movie is literally homemade. While some directors like John Sayles and Robert Rodriguez are known for editing in their own garages, Di Gregorio used his own apartment in Rome as his movie’s primary setting.

If the locale doesn’t seem terribly ambitious or adventurous, it was undeniably inspired. Mid-August Lunch earned the co-writer-director the Satyajit Ray Award at the 2008 London Film Festival and the Isvema, Luigi De Laurentiis and Pasinetti (Best Film) awards at the 2008 Venice Festival and a slew of other awards at festivals all over the world.

The movie concerns a middle-aged man named Gianni (played by Di Gregorio) who spends most of his days at home or drinking with a pal (Luigi Marchetti). He can’t afford to do much else because taking care of his demanding, aged mother (Valeria De Franciscis) is a full time job. Sadly, that doesn’t pay the rent.

When the building’s supervisor (Alfonso Santagata) wants to leave town for the Pranzo di Ferragosto holiday, he makes a deal with Gianni. He’ll forgive the delinquent rent if Gianni will keep an eye on Alfonso’s mother (Marina Cacciotti). Before Gianni can say no, Alfonso has also burdened him with his aunt (Maria Calì) as well. Gianni struggles to maintain order in his apartment as the guests’ orders get more demanding.

The gentle humor that runs throughout Mid-August Lunch stands as a sharp contrast to Di Gregorio’s best known assignment: co-writing Matteo Garrone’s dark, gritty gangster Oscar-nominated drama Gomorrah. From listening to Di Gregorio over the phone, it’s obvious that Mid-August Lunch is closer to his own heart and spirit, although Garrone served as a producer.

I spoke to Di Gregorio, who was in Rome, on a three-way call through a translator based in New York. Both of us only knew isolated words in each other’s native tongues, but if Di Gregorio knew the English word he wanted, he’d emphatically pronounce it before returning to Italian. From his tone of voice, it was obvious that he was still enthusiastic about the film even though he’d completed it two years ago.

Di Gregorio and his movie have drawn their inspirations from the Eternal City, but the laughs and the sentiments Mid-August Lunch evokes are global.

Dan Lybarger: Are you surprised that Mid-August Lunch has done so well outside of Italy?

Gianni Di Gregorio: Yes. I’m very surprised, and I really didn’t expect that. It’s my greatest joy that the film has been released outside of Italy. The release inside the United States is really important because it’s like a myth and a dream for us here in Europe to have one of our films released in the United States, so it’s really wonderful.

Lybarger: Why is it such a myth to get an Italian movie into America?

Di Gregorio: For my generation, we’ve grown up with American cinema. We’ve had our own important body of work here in Italy as well, of course. But in our imaginations, especially as kids, cinema and the movies were American.

Lybarger: For those of us who don’t live in Rome, could you explain what the Pranzo di Ferragosto holiday on August 15 is about?

Di Gregorio: It’s a holiday that began as a religious holiday, but it became a vacation holiday when everything stops: work stops, everything stops, and people go on vacation. And everybody feels they have a right to take a holiday, and they do it.

Translator: It’s a national holiday and a bank holiday.

Di Gregorio: And it’s an occasion for people to have elaborate meals and lunches on that day.

The etymology of the word (Pranzo de Ferragosto) comes from the Latin: Feriae Augusti (“The vacation of the Emperor Augustus”). It was the vacation of that Emperor Augustus gave to the Roman people.

Lybarger: So it would be fair to say that being stuck home alone at this time of year would be very unpleasant, is that correct?

Di Gregorio: Yes. Yes. Si. Si. (back to translator) Yeah, it’s a time when people are with family and friends and eating, so it would really be sad to find one’s self alone.

Lybarger: What I find interesting about the film is that it was shot primarily in one location. How were you able to prevent it from getting boring?

Di Gregorio: The location is not only a location: It’s actually the house where I live. And it’s the same house where I lived for many years with my mother. And it felt like it was the right environment and the right atmosphere because it was where something so similar to what happens in the film really happened in my life.

The way I avoided it
being boring was the ladies. (His own voice rises up) The ladies, si! (back to the translator) They were so full of life and energy that I had to contain them (translator laughs) because who knows what they would have done if I didn’t control them a little bit?

But they were so happy, that I had to sort of keep a lid on them.

After we shot, the whole crew and I were very tired at the end of the day. The ladies were fresh-faced and full of energy and vitality and were thinking and talking about the next day.

They gave the film a lot more than was written in the actual script.
Lybarger: Now these women were not professional actresses. Is that correct?

Di Gregorio: No, they were not. None of them were. One was my aunt. (in his own voice) Non-professional. Non-actors. (back to the translator) They were natural. They were very spontaneous, and above all, they really had fun.

At the beginning of the film, there was a little bit of friction with some of the actresses. They didn’t fully get along, and I was very worried about this. And then as we worked together, they really became friends. And I filmed this natural transformation of them becoming friends. And they still call me every day and tell me, “Don’t smoke! Don’t drink!” They’ve become like mothers to me (laughs with the translator).

Lybarger: I first became familiar with your work when I saw Gomorrah, which you co-wrote. The approach and tone are so different than in Mid-August Lunch.

Di Gregorio: Gomorrah was a very important work for me. It was extremely important. I really love social and dramatic themes. But within me there is a comic spirit. Even when I write dramatic scenes with other screenwriters, I always come out with comic lines, and they always sort of have to delete them. My comic nature comes out even in these non-comic moments.

Lybarger: In the film, you are shown doing a lot of cooking. How good a cook are you?

Di Gregorio: I know how to cook, and I also know how to drink a little bit of wine. Si. Si. Having had this mother in my own life, who is very dominating, very Italian. And because of the fact that I’m an only child, in the last days of my mother’s life, I was really her servant. I was her personal waiter: I cooked for her; I cleaned for her.

Lybarger: Grazie

Di Gregorio: (his own voice) Thank you, very much.

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originally posted: 03/18/10 20:53:33
last updated: 03/18/10 21:08:54
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