December 14th, 2009
Mid August Lunch is out on DVD and I am nervous writing about it. The film has been highly praised by reviewers and has obtained a few awards, in particular the Satyajit Ray Award at the London Film Festival. Friends have recommended it and the majority of people (mainly women) at the Lexi and the Phoenix screenings enjoyed it. It is obviously a feelgood film about ageing and care.
It is not easy to go against other people’s feelgood reactions to films. It is all the more difficult to question this film when it is widely broadcast that the male director lived with his mother and cared for her in the last ten years of her life. But havins seen the interviews with actors on the DVD extras I am more confident to propose that the film reinforces prejudices about older women and diminishes them.
There are a few feature films that deal with an older woman and a carer as the main subject : Tati Danielle, Driving Miss Daisy, Pauline and Paulette, Iris, not to forget the wonderful Paul Cox’s A Woman’s Tale. There are fewer films featuring a group of old women: Alive and Kicking, The Company of Strangers, and Starukhi. Unfortunately the better of these films have had very little distribution and are unknown to the general public.
Mid August Lunch described as a comedy is unusual in that it features four old women with the son of one of them as carer.
The action takes place in Rome one hot August week-end. A middle age man (Gianni) who likes his drink and has financial difficulties cares for his demanding mother. The manager of his residence asks him to look after his mother Marina and aunt Maria over the Ascension week-end. His doctor who is on duty, also begs to bring his mother Grazia because her Rumanian carer is away. Both sons offer financial incentives for this favour. Initially the four women behave in an obstructive manner. Eventually they all get together and share a convivial Ascension day meal.
The style of the film has a documentary flavour. Filmed with a handheld camera in natural light, in the restricted space of a Roman flat, the shots are mainly close-ups, and extreme close-ups. A lot of the shots focus on the hands, arms, faces and hair of the women. It is dark and claustrophobic in the flat. Marina’s escape is filmed in the night light and a very long shot. Both devices retain the feeling of containment. The one escape from this confined atmosphere is when Gianni goes shopping for food in the light of a summer day.
The titles sequences set the underlying idea of the film. A close-up follows the hand and arm of an old woman in bed and settles on her profile. Lines, folds, liver spots are prominent on the skin. The next shot shows a middle age man sitting by the bedside reading aloud from the Three Musketeers. The woman interrupts to ask him to describe d’Artagnan. The man is forced to leaf through the book in search of the relevant pages. She declares petulantly that she would not ‘fancy’ his beaked nose. She eventually goes to sleep. He turns the light off. In the next scene we hear her call !Gianni!. It is the middle of the night and we see him patiently get out of bed to attend to her.
The contrast of the close-ups on skin with the bedtime story, the choice of reading matter and the interruptions suggest strongly the idea of a child mind in an old body. This idea pervades the rest of the film.
The other scenes strongly suggestive of children are the ones where the other women are dropped at Gianni’s house as parent drop children at a day care centre. The women have nothing to say and the sons talk directly to Gianni and give him instructions. In a more subtle way, the behaviour of the women can be described as childish rather than adult. Gianni’s mother declares she will welcome Marina but then does not want to share the evening meal with her. She then repents. She lends her TV to Marina and then wants it back. Grazia eats irresponsibly
Physically the women seem able-bodied. Maria does not show any sign of having lost her memory in spite of her nephew mentioning it. The characterisations of the four women are very thin indeed. Each one has one main feature: the mother is concerned with her appearance and is seen making up with great care, Maria is good at making pasta and we see her doing so, Grazia dwells on the past and talks incessantly, and Marina is the bon vivant. She smokes, drinks and makes sexual advances to Gianni.
When finally the women communicate, their activities and talk remain as puerile. They watch TV, they read palms, they set the table. And a jolly time is had by all including Gianni and his friend.
When I first saw the film I thought it was boring, that most of the laughs were at the expense of the women and their childishness. Gianni’s infinite patience and dependence on alcohol was somewhat funny and there were too some laughs of recognition in the dietary restrictions and amount of pills needed by old people . But otherwise it was difficult to understand why the film was so praised.
It is only when I read the interviews with Gianni – the director – that I understood that despite a very poor narrative, no characterisation and no tension, the magic of the cinema worked to project the personalities of the women by their sheer presence and possibly some of their contributions. The director said “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.”
He also said previously that before filming he “… was struck by their (old women in general) vitality but at the same time by their vulnerability and the fear of loneliness”, “ I wanted to underline the sense of possession that some mothers have on their sons and especially singletons.” Alas none of these interesting dramatic intentions are reflected in the film.
He is also quoted as saying that there was something of his mother in each of the women. By imbuing only one of his mother’s trait in each of the women he has impoverished each of the characters. It can be argued that the women are not supposed to be full-blown realistic persons. Alas the style of the film would be in contradiction with this notion. How come none of the women displayed any signs of intellectual life? The enduring concern with one’s appearance and sexual feelings in old age are touched upon but Gianni’s mother’s make-up is more like that of a pantomime dame than a dignified old woman and Marina’s sexual advances is played for laughs.
Philip French of the Observer found the film witty. There is not a single line uttered by any of the women that is funny or intelligent. As mentioned before, the laughs at both the Phoenix and the Lexi screenings were mainly in response to the childish behaviour of the women, the carer’s alcohol dependency, his infinite patience.
On the DVD extras, the visits to the old women actors none of them professionals, show powerful, competent, intelligent women with an independent life and no need of carer for a week-end. Marina Caciotti who played Marina displays real rebellion. She objects to the inclusion of the scene where her character is said to have used a bidet cover on the cake she brought as an offering. She also rebels at the editing that she says deprived Marina of any substance.
It seems to me that this film functions on the audience like Gianni’s dose of herbal infusions and sedative pills that he used to pacify the women. The women are comfortably well off, they are able in body and not too questioning in mind, they rebel gently and are brought to reason gently. Their sons are concerned enough, the carer with the help of good wine and some money is patient. Give them good food, wine and forced company end everybody will be happy.
The reviewers are nearly unanimous in liking the film. Why is it acceptable even laudable to portray old women as immature children? Are old men similarly treated in films?
Michelle Hanson who looked after her mother and wrote about it in the Guardian says from an older woman point of view.“But I am torn over this film. Is this the only sort of old lady future on offer for us? Because it’s more or less the only one we ever see. I know these are Italians, but old women are apparently the same over here. A bit childish, with nothing much to say for themselves, and not much interest in the wider world.
How about you readers? Will you turn into silly old ladies who tantrum because they can’t have the telly, who have no friends, can’t manage on their own and live a lonely life, dependent on their children?
In this film there is no space to think and ponder why perfectly able and capable women accept to spend the night in the flat of a stranger, and why their rebellion is so tame and why the Italian heat wave of August 2003 killed 8000 old people.
In the context of sexism/ageism of today’s media, this film and its success is disturbing.
Come back Tatie Danielle.