He might be 60, but if his first film is to teach us anything, it’s that this old dog is well capable of learning a few new tricks. As well as writing and directing Mid-August Lunch, Gianni Di Gregorio also took the lead as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor who cares for his elderly mother. Populated with family and friends, Mid-August Lunch is a tender semi-autobiographical portrait of the lesser explored charms of old age. And it could well mark a turn in Di Gregorio’s career.
Success has not come easy to Di Gregorio, but after picking up the award for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival, it would seem the Italian screenwriter has plenty to look forward to. Otherwise best known for co-writing 2008’s harrowing organised crime drama Gomorrah; Di Gregorio equally favours authenticity and heart over sentimentality in his latest offering. From gritty gangster epic to charming comedy in little over a year, it is a testament to Di Gregorio’s ambitions and ability as a writer that his diversity continues to receive such acclaim.
After the success of Gomorrah you would be forgiven for expecting to see more of the same from a writer who has not been particularly prolific over the years. But this is a man in no hurry. Such a dramatic yet competent genre shift indicates that in his twilight years, Di Gregorio is just getting started. But for now, at least, he’s happy keeping things in the family.
We caught up with Di Gregorio to chew over Mid-August Lunch.
LWLies: What motivated you to write, direct and star in this film?
Di Gregorio: Though I have a family of my own, I lived with my old, widowed mother for many years (being her only child) so came to know well the reality of being old. I was struck by their vitality and energy but at the same time by their vulnerability and the fear of loneliness they have. I thought then that it would be fair to show these two aspects, though during the shoot I realised that their positivity and desire to live prevailed.
LWLies: How did you personally handle the transition from screenwriter to director
Di Georgio: At the beginning I thought I had a precise and detailed screenplay, but during the shoot I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the four ladies, entering the scenes with the power of their personalities, twisting some parts of the screenplay and bringing a sense of truth and superior spontaneity to what I had written.
LWLies: Why did you decide to set a film during a national holiday and how do you hope audiences outside of Italy will engage with the film?
Di Georgio: In Italy, during Ferragosto cities are empty. That’s why I thought it would be the best period to represent loneliness. I also hoped that universal themes, such as the relationship between parents and offspring, as well as tolerance between different generations, could help audiences strongly identify with the characters. LWLies: What difficulties did you face acting in as well as directing the film?
Di Georgio: I tried to concentrate only on the interpretation of my character and this was possible thanks to the beautiful troupe that was working with me. For me, they also represented an external and objective view on what was happening.
LWLies: Your films tend to have a strong focus on family. Can you tell us what family means to you and why you decided to cast members of your own family?
Di Georgio: I believe family is very important in Italy, including its merits and shortcomings. I wanted to underline the sense of possession that some mothers have on their sons and especially on singletons. After all it is a metaphor for the power that rests with the individual. Which is a very interesting theme, in my opinion.
LWLies: How did you go about auditioning for the rest of the cast?
Di Georgio: I looked for the cast in my neighbourhood, Trastevere, in the heart of Rome. For the leading roles I visited a lot of rest homes and met around 100 ladies aged between 80 and 90. I must say they all were fantastic and making a decision was very difficult.
LWLies: After the success of Gomorra, have you felt pressure to write more of the same or was the change in genre direction a deliberate decision of yours?
Di Georgio: Actually I wrote the story of ‘Lunch of Ferragosto’ in 2000 and it was a project on which I was working. It happened by chance that both films were made in the same year. LWLies: How have your expectations been for this film following its success at various festivals?
Di Georgio: I hope this movie will have the largest possible audience, but the thing that made me really happy is that my movie touched an international audience. LWLies: Why do you think comedy is an important genre in Italy, and what are your hopes for the future of Italian cinema?
Di Georgio: Comedy makes people laugh and think at the same time. Besides, it belongs to the tradition of Italian cinema. Lately I see a germ of rebirth in Italian cinema thanks to films that take look at reality and have an ethical sense, recalling neo-realism.
LWLies: What are your inspirations as a writer and now a director?
Di Georgio: I could make a long list of titles, but I want to say one thing from the bottom of my heart: After working for years in theatre, it was Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets that influenced my choice to make cinema at any cost.