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Divining Comedy

“Mid-August Lunch” serves up an unusual Italian holiday.

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The Rome in “Mid-August Lunch” is empty except for a few odd characters, and covered in graffiti — not at all the tourist postcard seen in most movies, but a refreshingly honest portrait of a country lorded over by the likes of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, messy and difficult but with a wicked sense of humor about it all.

The month is August, during a holiday called Ferragosto. As the random tourist wanders by, we amble through a ghost town where the broke, middle-aged Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) and his 93-year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis) have been ducking their building superintendent for years to avoid paying condo fees. The superintendent has a deal: Put up his mother for the upcoming two-day holiday and all will be forgiven. Gianni has little choice, but circumstances eventually put him in charge of two other elderly women, bringing the total under his care to an unmanageable four. You can bet a trip to Venice that they begin to snipe at each other from the outset.

Di Gregorio co-wrote the hit Italian film “Gomorrah.” “Mid-August Lunch” would be an unusual follow-up to a brutal gangster film anyway for the first-time director, but more so because it is such a rare, dry comedy.

With his ever present glass of Chablis in hand, Gianni observes the women and their complaining through the baggy slits of world-weary eyes. In other movies he'd be throwing up his hands or getting knocked over the head, but Di Gregorio exhibits masterful restraint, channeling Buster Keaton's stone face as he directs himself and these feisty matrons with just the right amount of camera interference.

And then, like the holiday at hand, the movie ends abruptly, not tidily but with questions about who these characters are. Should we be laughing, or just sad for them? “We do this gladly,” Gianni's mom reminds him of their guests, “but gladly up to a point.” Again, same for the movie. (NR) 75 min.

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