Help the Aged

Pranzo di Ferragosto (Gianni di Gregorio, 2008)

Directorial debut from one of the Gomorrah scriptwriters (also playing the male lead), presumably at pains to show his versatility. Having shown the mafia’s labyrinthine stranglehold over Neapolitan society, here he serves up something much more modest and light; a warm humanist comedy in which most of the cast are 90-something amateurs. 

Most of the action is confined to Gianni’s (apparently real-life) small flat in Trastevere and the surrounding streets. The flat seems too small for the number of people that end up in it and as the handheld camera swivels round the kitchen, everyone shouting over one another, we get a sense of claustrophobia; it feels like they are all continually banging into one another.

It’s the middle of August and Rome is like a pressure cooker; whenever Gianni steps outside the hum of crickets is ever-present. He sits in a grafitti-strewn street to have a drink with a friend, and they point and snigger at the passing tourists. “They’re so white, like they’ve been bleached”. Everyone in the cinema chuckled in recognition.

This is the bank holiday weekend when most Romans escape to the seaside, the country, or anywhere they can cool down. No such luck for Gianni- his debts are mounting because his live-in mother is so demanding that he can’t find the time to work. His only concession to the seasonal condition is to take a discarded electric fan from a skip.

Gianni has infinite patience with Mamma. As he reads Dumas to her in bed, she interrupts with a stream of queries and remarks. “He has a hooked nose? Then I don’t like him!” she remarks after asking for a description of D’Artagnan. She calls for him in the middle of the night; Gianni is docile and obedient with her, using a constant stream of fags and white wine to subdue his frustration.

The pair are made anxious  by a visit from Alfonso, the administrator of the condominium. Gianni has not been paying his service charges, or his share of the bills, for some three years and the neighbours are preparing legal action. Alfonso knows how it is, he’s got problems too- he’s got dermatitis. He needs to go away to a spa with his wife and kids, but who will look after his mother for the weekend? If Gianni can help him out, he’ll gladly write off all his outstanding debts. We see how Italian society functions; one favour for another.

Gianni wins his mother round to the idea during a conspiratorial supper, the camera moving round the edge of the room. And next morning, Alfonso turns up with his mother Marina and his aunt Maria. Gianni is fuming but Alfonso is very careful not to leave the women’s side, so that he cannot say anything. Mamma, her skin wrinkled and covered in blotches, applies red lipstick, foundation and earrings before coming out to face her visitors like Punch in drag.

Alfonso pushes a few Euro notes into Gianni’s palm on his way out. My aunt is very nice, but “she forgets a few things”. Leaning out the window as he smokes, Gianni sees Alfonso taking down the top of his convertible. He greets a blonde girl half his age and they drive off together. Gianni goes back to cooking lunch, with perpetually-topped up wine in one hand and a fag in his mouth.

Having hypochondriac tendencies, Gianni hias summoned Marcello, his GP, over for a check-up. The doctor is in trouble- he really needs to Gianni to take in his mother, Grazia, for the weekend. What difference is one more? Gianni accepts with a stunned stoicism. Marcello gives meticulous instructions about the cocktails of pills his mother takes, and what hours she takes them. Oh, and she’s violently allergic to cheese and tomatoes. Gianni and Maria have been making an enormous pasta bake.

The macaroni looks and smells delicious, but Grazia has to make do with a plate of steamed vegetables. She looks over forlornly as Maria remarks that she’d rather starve than eat that green slop. Mamma does not join them for dinner; weirded out by the invasion, she’s hiding in her bedroom playing solitaire. When she asks to have her TV set back, having loaned it to Marina, the latter locks herself into the dining room and won’t let them in- dinner in the kitchen, then.

There are too many people in this poky flat and Gianni is finding it impossible to keep the peace. There’s a humorous moment when he tries to make the ladies camomile tea by putting teabags into a pan of water which doesn’t infuse- four bags, then six, then eight. Mamma feels guilty and invites the others into her room; Marina doesn’t open her door until the small hours, when a floor-level camera follows her feet as she sneaks outside.

Gianni finds her getting drunk at a terrace bar and she won’t come back with him (“No way. I’m drinking, I’m smoking”). When he finally succeeds in retrieving her, she makes a mortifying attempt to seduce him (“I’m afraid to sleep alone. You’re so big, so strong”). And having escaped Marina, Gianni finds that Grazia has raided the fridge and eaten all the remaining macaroni.

As Gianni wakes the next morning, the initially suspicious ladies are getting on famously, Grazia dispensing palm readings. It’s time for the guests to go home but they want to have Ferragosto lunch together. They plead with Gianni and produce 100 Euro notes. He’s too much of a softie to say no, but all the shops will be shut.

Viking, his friend from the wine bar, gives Gianni a backie on his motorbike. This is the only scene where we see a bit more of Rome. As the ladies polish glasses and set out plates and bowls, the men whizz through the deserted Roman streets, past the Colosseo. Their destination is the banks of the Tiber, where they present a fisherman with a nice bottle of wine; again, to get what you want it’s one favour for another.

Gianni manages to scrape together a slap-up meal and when Alfonso and Marcello start calling, the ladies beg to be allowed to stay for supper. The closing credits sees them all dancing round the flat.

The amateur cast were watchable and funny, the ladies giving the sense of old age as a second childhood; they are mischievous and devil-may-care in their attitudes and troublemaking. They love to talk about their pasts, their childhood and courtships; “Old age offers you so little, so you walk back through the years”, says Grazia.

For all the fondness and whimsy, the film does make you think about our aging society. What will we do with all these pensioners? Their sons are eager to be rid of the burden and will pay off anyone who can take over; but once Gianni knuckles down to caring for them, he finds it greatly rewarding. He begins the film worn down by stress, and ends it laughing uncontrollably. They may be a bit batty, but they’re still people and we’re all going to end up just like them. By putting this point under the spotlight, the film gives dignity to old age.


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August 2009
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