Khristine Shares her Favorite Italian Movies and Series

This is the first installment of my “Reader’s Advisory” Progetto Speciale on my personal choices of Italian movies/series. I’m not a film critic, or even really a film aficionado. I am just a lover of “things Italian,” including Italian culture, Italian food, and “la bella lingua,” the beautiful Italian language. Oh, and Italians, too. Perhaps you are also, or would like to be. You don’t need to speak Italian (I really don’t), or even understand it, or even be half Italian (like me!). You just need to have an openness toward watching movies with subtitles (so easy), and a way to watch them. For me, it’s DVDs from our fabulous Cape libraries, or Kanopy streaming, which you get for free with your library card.  Andiamo!! Let’s go!!

This week’s choices are two truly charming, funny, yet poignant semi-autobiographical movies by Gianni Di Gregorio, who wrote, directed, and starred in the films. 

Pranzo di Ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch) (2008) was shot in his own apartment in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. He chose for his stars people he already knew, some good friends and some acquaintances who had never acted before. Good choices, Gianni! They are all “naturals,” and he uses their real first names as their “movie” names, including his disreputable-looking friend Viking, who seems to know where to get the freshest food when stores are closed, as long as he has his scooter to take him around Rome.  Fabulous Valeria De Franciscis, who at the age of ninety-three, plays his mother Valeria, is a brilliant mix of charm, vanity, and manipulation as she rules with a velvet glove. Gianni’s real life props, a glass of white wine and a cigarette, feature in every scene, as an antidote for his comical and veiled exasperation.

It’s 2008, and Gianni and his mamma can’t pay their condo fees and can’t see a way out of their situation…until the condo administrator comes to the door with an offer they can’t refuse…take his mamma, Marina, and his aunt, Maria, for Ferragosto, the August 15th celebration at the peak of Italy’s vacation time and the hottest time of the year. Within minutes, his best friend and family doctor, Marcellino, shows up at the door with an urgent request that Gianni take his mother Grazia as well, since Marcellino has suddenly been called in to cover a night shift at the hospital. Now the characters are assembled, the scene is set, and the action, such as it is, is underway. The food is great too, and watching Gianni cook while managing his ubiquitous glasses of wine and cigarettes is impressive. He is a wonderful character, full of generosity, gentle irony, and quiet desperation. It’s all nuanced, and funny, and touching, as he and these ancient ladies (mainly) ad lib their way into your heart.

The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne), made in 2011, although not truly a sequel to Pranzo di Ferragostois loosely one. Gianni Di Gregorio is once again the semi-autobiographical main character who writes, directs, and stars in this wry take on the mid-life crisis of a sixty-year-old Italian man. There’s more of a mix of professional and non-professional actors this time. The film is more polished than Pranzo di Ferragosto, but retains the same balance of humor, melancholy, and gentle irony, and at the center of it all, the generous, kind, and self-effacing Gianni. His movie mother, Valeria De Franciscis, once again takes center stage, but has managed to expand her talents for manipulation, guilt-tripping, and self-centeredness, while at the same time saying everything “in the nicest possible way.” And she now lives in a beautifully landscaped condominium complex (which Gianni, of course, can’t afford) and she spends her days hosting card parties al fresco, and drinking cases of expensive champagne with her argumentative and creaky girlfriends.

This time around, Gianni lets us have more of a view into his “real” life. We see that he is married to an attractive, confident woman, but their life together, though affectionate, has the familiar tone of a long-term marriage when the “shine” has worn off. In the movie, his daughter is played by his own daughter, his daughter and her boyfriend live with him as in real life, and his little black dog is played by his own little black dog. And his crisis of confidence in the movie, which is mostly about having become invisible to women, is also his own real-life crisis. (In an Interview with Gianni Di Gregorio which I recently read, he said, “You can’t go to your wife and say: women just don’t see me anymore. I have done it – my wife just laughed.”)

Gianni’s out of shape, middle-aged friend Alfonso (who plays the condo administrator in the earlier movie), claims to have succeeded in having affairs with sexy, young women, and pressures Gianni to follow his lead. But Gianni is truly a gentleman, and his several unsuccessful attempts with a parade of beautiful young women, though awkward and funny, also leave us with some of the ache we know he is feeling. He will never be the daring, dashing person he longs to be, and he knows it. But as it turns out, he can still dream!

These are two really delightful movies, and I’ve watched them more than once…real Italians, beautiful Rome, a story both comic and poignant at the same time, and the real, the lovable Gianni Di Gregorio. Watch these in sequence, and find them on Kanopy, or on DVD from CLAMS when we are up and running again.