Pranzo di Ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch) (2008) ****
Probably the most delighted I have ever been watching a new film at the cinema was on my first encounter with this, which I went to see with no expectations and not even any clear sense of what it was going to be.
The only reasons I had for expecting to enjoy it were that it was Italian, it had a U certificate but was not a kids' film, and it was only 75 minutes long. All of these things pointed to pleasure, but the film itself was a revelation and remains an oft-revisited favourite. As an antidote to contemporary standards, it couldn't be more revolutionary. There are five main characters, one a middle-aged man and the other four women in their nineties. The supporting characters are a few more middle-aged men and the beautiful city of Rome. No CGI was required. Nothing explodes.
It's about a good-natured but somehow directionless man who lives with his aged mother (and the relationship between them is beautifully realistic; no silly extremes, just real, day to day ups and downs) and set mainly during the day Romans traditionally leave for the beach and the entire city closes down. Because of his mother he must stay in the city, and he is also left to care for the aged relatives of his landlord (he hasn't paid his rent) and doctor (he can't afford to pay for his consultations). Over the course of the film, and many glasses of wine, he moves from quiet resentment of his lot to resignation to a kind of bemused acceptance.
Gianni Di Gregorio, equally impressive as writer, director and star, shot the film in the exact apartment he shared with his own mother, and all of the elderly ladies are non-professionals: one is his aunt, one a family friend and the other two came from an old people's home. All four are sensationally good, each with their own carefully distinguished and fully developed characters. Nobody is patronised, or relegated to a thumbnail sketch.
It is moving without being remotely sad, funny without ever playing for laughs. Few films have a tenth of its charm, its sincerity, its warmth, its keenness to please.