GIANNI Di GREGORIO

There used to be a TV panel show titled Life Begins at 80. That may be true, and I’ll find out in about ten years, but meanwhile Gianni Di Gregorio has gotten a head start.

Di Gregorio is an Italian filmmaker who got people to take him seriously when he was in his late 50s. He did it with a film called Pranzo di Ferragosto, known in English as Mid-August Lunch or Lunch for Ferragosto. “Ferragosto” — from the Latin meaning “feasts of Augustus” — is a mid-summer holiday that has its origins in the Roman Empire.

Di Gregorio, who has said that he had trouble getting financial backing because his 2008 film is about old people, directs and plays the principal character — Gianni. The use of the name is not so much the result of a lack of imagination as it is a result of the autobiographical aspects of the film.

Gianni — the character, not the director — keeps himself supplied with bottles of “nice” wine, and puts them on the tab.

Gianni, the character, is a middle-aged man who lives in Rome with his aged mother in a condominium they cannot afford. Gianni hasn’t paid the maintenance fee in two years, and the condo administrator comes around to say that Gianni and his Mama may be evicted. But the administrator has a problem that Gianni is in a position to solve, and the quid pro quo would be cancellation of some of Gianni’s debts. The administrator wants to take a short vacation, and he would like to leave his own aged mother in Gianni’s care. Gianni is in no position to turn down this offer, and he agrees to accept the woman as a guest.

Almost simultaneously, Gianni’s family doctor  arrives for a house call. He, too, it turns out, needs a place to park his Mom — and there’s something in it for Gianni. When the doctor arrives with his mother, he brings along an aunt as well, and suddenly Gianni finds himself the chef and maître d’hôtel for a gaggle of ancient females who don’t always do as they are told.

The story of this odd situation and the events that result from it are told in this film, which DiGregorio directed, in manner so understated that one gets the feeling of  observing people going about the minutiae of their  everyday lives. Much of the dialogue (in Italian with English subtitles) consists of mumbled sentence fragments. The interchanges among the characters feels so natural that I suspect that much of the story was filmed without a firm script, or perhaps with no script at all.

Gianni presides at dinner with his mother, left, and guests. His mother is played by Valeria De Franciscis, who was 93 when this film was made.

If the cast didn’t depend heavily on a script, that would be appropriate, because several of them were not actors. For example, Valeria De Franciscis, who plays Gianni’s mother, was a family friend who, the director wisely thought, fit the part. De Franciscis was so well suited  to the role that she played Di Gregorio’s mother again in his 2011 film, “The Salt of Life.”

Mid-August Lunch  was well received when it first appeared and won some prestigious awards. It is  highly regarded for the light touch with which it portrays some of the realities of middle and old age. It also reflects the relationship many Italian men have with their doting and possessive mothers. Many a tenor has enthusiastically sung about this phenomenon: “Mama . . . Tu sei la vita, e per la vita non ti lascio mai piu.” And, in fact, Di Gregorio shot much of this film in the apartment in which he lived for many years with his elderly mother.

Di Gregorio is, by reputation, a charming guy, and he certainly communicates that through the character in this film. He got off to a late start as a filmmaker, but I hope we’ll be seeing him and his work a lot more,

Having dabbled with Marcello Mastroianni in Macaroni and Marriage Italian Style, we went to the well once more in the form Sunflower, a film we had never heard of. The results were mixed.

This film, made in 1970, was the last directed by Vittorio De Sica, and —significantly — it was the first western film shot, in part, in the Soviet Union. Mastroianni, who was 46 when this movie was made, plays Antonio, a happy-go-lucky Neapolitan who is drafted into the Italian army during World War II. He is not a willing conscript, and his valor isn’t helped by the fact that he is in the middle of passionate fling with Giovanna, played by 36-year-old Sophia Loren.  His attempt, with Giovanna’s connivance, to avoid military service results in a court-martial and his deployment to the Russian front — which was a brutal fate thanks to both the Red Army and the merciless winters.

When the war ends, Antonio doesn’t return, but Giovanna is convinced that he is still alive. After failing to get any satisfaction from public authorities, she travels to Russia to look for him. It’s not a spoiler to say she finds him, inasmuch as Mastroianni is the co-star. Some may find the circumstances and outcome predictable; some may not.

Watching this film, which has Italian dialogue and English subtitles, is an uneven experience. Mastroianni and Loren are an irresistible combination, and they play their  parts well, but the story itself is at times melodramatic and implausible. In what seems to have been an overreaching attempt to project the character’s moods, Loren is made to look at times as if she’s 30 and at other times as if she’s 50.

The photography in both Italy and Russia is eye-catching, and there is a very effective scene in which Giovanna visits a Russian hillside that is dotted with hundreds of wooden crosses marking the graves of Italian soldiers. The film also has a wonderful score by Henry Mancini that was nominated for an Oscar.

DANIELLE CANTANZARITI

In our quest to keep up with the career of Keisha Castle-Hughes, we came across a 2008 Australian film, “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger.”

This is a rather blunt story — written and directed by Cathy Randall — about a 13-year-old girl, the title character, who attends a private school, where the snobbish and often brutal cliques ridicule and shun her, while she also navigates a home life made difficult by a rigid mother (Essie Davis) and thoughtless father (Russell Dykstra). Esther falls in with Sunni — Castle-Hughes — an older and more worldly wise student at a public school. The relationship introduces Esther to a gritty world she has been unaware of, and it teaches her a hard lesson about the hazards of trying to fit in by distorting one’s own identity.

DANIELLE CANTANZARITI

Esther is played by Danielle Cantanzariti, who got the part when she turned up for a cattle call audition for extras. The film-makers had screened about 3,000 candidates over a period of four months. The girl is excellent in the role. The character is quirky and smart, and Cantanzariti really goes to town on that. The story has both drama and humor, and this child is skilled at both. Some of the exchanges between her and her brother Jacob (Christian Byers) — who has his own share of complexes — are  hilarious.

Castle-Hughes gives a smooth performance as Sunni, whose self-assured demeanor masks the tension in her life with an amiable but unfocused single mother, Mary– nicely played by Toni Collette. The delicate balance in Sunni’s own life is revealed when she loses control in her attempt to re-make Esther, and the younger girl goes too far in order to preserve her standing with her peers. Castle-Hughes played an 12-year-old Maori girl in “Whale Rider” and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in “The Nativity Story.”

The film has a soundtrack that is well tuned to Randall’s themes, including music related to the Blueberger family’s Jewish faith, which figures prominently in the story in a couple of ways.

“Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” cost a lot to make and didn’t return much for the investors. It deserved better.

KEISHA CASTLE-HUGHES and TONI COLLETTE