Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Food at the flicks: Mid-August Lunch

As the 73 year old Berlusconi recovers in hospital after being bashed in the face by a madman brandishing a souvenir statuette of Milan's cathedral, the film 'Mid-August Lunch' ponders the subject of age. This is a film about mothers and sons in a country where there is no shame in loving your mother.
Director, screen writer and leading actor Gianni di Gregorio plays a dutiful son, who cannot work because he looks after his mother. The woman who plays her has one of the most extraordinary faces I have ever seen on screen; craggy skin stained with liver spots, a lipless mouth pinched by the years. Nevertheless she retains a regal style, hair perfectly set, lips painted; fingers crooked and knotted from arthritus but the nails are manicured. In Italy , even in your dotage, you keep up appearances. In bed she wears an acid yellow turban, like a brightly coloured combination of Sophia Loren and Liz Taylor... I love the way that this film does not avoid age but observes it gently.
Gianni is persuaded to pay off some of his debts by looking after some other abandoned mothers for the 15th of August, a holiday in Catholic Europe, the festival of the Virgin Mary (the almighty mother loved by Italians). At first the old ladies are cranky with each other. Dialogue is both elaborately polite and startingly frank.
Gianni treats their 'snippiness' with patience. He cooks for them, we often see him in the kitchen rustling up asparagus, or baked pasta or the advised but hated steamed vegetables. The old ladies gradually start to enjoy each others company, finally sitting down for a communal feast in which they toast each other with Prosecco.
People are terrified of growing old, being put 'into a home' but the company of others of your generation could be a wonderful thing; a kind of backpacker's hostel for the elderly.
Gianni di Gregorio was the script writer on 'Gomorra' which, set in the crime-ridden council flats of Naples, is carrying the flame for De Sicca and Rossellini's post-war Italian neorealism movement in film. I wrote about Gomorra here and The Daily Beast mentioned my review (yay!). I highly recommend both films.

Other films I like about film and food:
Babette's Feast: A Danish film set in the 18th century. A Frenchwoman 'corrupts' a small religious community with her cooking. Fantastic sets and photography, from an Isak Dineson short story.
Tampopo: A Japanese film made in the 1980s which seems to be hard to get hold of nowadays. A surreal comedy about cowboys and noodles.
The Discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie: one of Bunuel's last films. This explores the social mores of the dinner party. It also stars the elegant Stephane Audran who later plays the cook in Babette's feast.
Chocolat could have been great: a free-spirited single mother opens a chocolatier in a village in France. Except the normally excellent Johnny Depp can't manage a convincing Irish accent. Film looks good though and an all star cast.
My dinner with Andre: you don't notice the food in this film. But you are totally gripped throughout, despite the limitations: it's set in a restaurant with only two actors, apart from waiters bringing the dishes. One of Louis Malle's best films apart from 'Au revoir les enfants'.
Sideways: a comedy about wine. Great script and performances, especially the underused Virginia Madsen who makes wine sound a sexy occupation for girls.
The cook, the thief, his wife and her lover: Peter Greenaway's gruesome and cannibalistic film about a criminal who owns a restaurant. Giorgio Locatelli created the food. I like Greenaway but much prefer his gorgeous first film which features candlelit al fresco dinner parties 'The Draughtman's Contract'
I will add to this list as I remember more films...but Julie&Julia, directed by one of my favourite authors, Nora Ephron, who included recipes in her novel 'Heartburn', is probably the first Hollywood movie about a blogger. How wonderful that the blogger happens to be a food blogger! I loved this film, was blown away by Meryl Streep's exuberant performance and sympathised with the plight of the blogger. I recognised so many things...it takes a certain level of obsession to be a regular blogger (especially as you aren't getting paid). Julie Powell is portrayed somewhat unsympathetically.

Eating in the cinema always feels like a treat: there is something of the midnight feast about it, illicit scoffing in the dark. Film theorist Christian Metz talks about cinema's tendency to make you drop your guard, put you in a hypnotic state. One is barely conscious: the massive screen, the comfy chairs, the surround sound, before you know it, your entire pack of Revels has disappeared!
I often take flasks of coffee and my own popcorn as I resent paying the ridiculous prices charged at cinemas. For the last Harry Potter film, my teen and I made hot butterbeer and took it in a thermos. There used to be all nighters at the Scala cinema in Kings Cross. People would not only take food and drink but pillows and duvets!
When I go to Sunday afternoon double bills at the Rio in Dalston, I will buy fresh made flatbreads made a few doors up in the window of a Turkish cafe.
The perfect cinema food must be silent and easy to manage, no rustling papers, no crunching or slurping. Any suggestions? Samosas are very handy. What do you like to eat at the cinema...a choc ice in the interval? A pack of fruit gums? Or do you bring a picnic? As for popcorn, my favourite is mixed salt and sweet....

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) is now out on DVD (Artificial Eye)


  1. In NZ it's traditional to eat Jaffas (round orange candy-covered chocolates), but most of them get rolled down the aisle. Except most cinemas have steps now.

  2. The Duke of York's cinema in Brighton use to do a fab' apple flapjack, but that was some years ago now. I love the thermos suggestion too, I'll be trying that.

  3. Never heard of Jaffas...how interesting.

    Thermos...love 'em. Sometimes I take different hot drinks depending on the film. A Chinese film? Hot Jasmine tea or miso soup. An indian one...chai.
    Hot chocolate works a treat.
    For the last Harry Potter movie, my daughter and I made hot butterbeer...I'm sure the rest of the audience were jealous.

  4. Have you seen 'Like Water for Chocolate'? That's a good film about food.

  5. I've got it BJ, but not got round to watching it...will rectify that tonight!

  6. Ooh, this sounds like a film I would love! Like Water for Chocolate is a bit odd but good and I love Big Night Out. I second the recommendation for The Duke of York's - even I remember when you could still smoke and drink booze there - infact I think alchohol is still permitted. A gem of a cinema.


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