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,



We watched “Bread and Tulips” – “Pane e Tulipane” – an Italian romantic comedy from 2000.

This is a quirky, entertaining film with absurd English subtitles. My knowledge of Italian is just enough past the rudimentary level that I could follow much of what the actors were saying, and I could also see that the subtitles in many cases were only rough approximations of the actual dialogue. And a person who didn’t know Italian at all would notice that some of the translations were so literal as to be comical. Despite that distraction, however, we found this film to be well worth the while.


The story concerns Rosalba Barletta (played by  Licia Maglietta), who is left behind at a rest stop during a vacation with her family. When she telephones her overbearing, unfaithful husband Mimmo (played by Antonio Catania), he barks at her to stay where she is and expresses no regret for the mistake or concern for her wellbeing. Already discontented with her life, Rosalba decides to ignore his instruction and sets off on her own by hitchhiking. She ends up in – where else? – Venice, where she secures room and board in the apartment of Fernando Girasole, a suicidal Icelandic man (played by Bruno Ganz) who works as maitre d’  in a small restaurant.


. Rosalba supports herself in this spontaneous adventure by working for a local florist named Fermo (played by Felice Andreasi)  – an anarchist in the best Italian tradition. Rosalba, who has developed a sweet and mutual romantic interest in Fernando, keeps in touch with her family but does not hurry home. Mimmo runs out of patience with her and hires Cosantino Caponangeli (played by Giuseppe Battiston) to travel to Venice and find her. Cosantino does find Rosalba, but that enterprise doesn’t turn out at all the way Mimmo intended.


Although we found this film engaging over all, we were confused by dream sequences involving Rosalba. Under Silvio Soldini’s direction, the transition from reality to dream is not immediately clear. We would like to have understood better Fernando’s secretive relationship with a young woman and her son. The nature of their connection – not what most people might assume at first – is only superficially explained. There are also several instances in which scenes fade to black in a way that gives the film the feel of a television movie with the commercials edited out.

On the other hand, the director keeps the film visually interesting by avoiding any saccharine image of Venice and presenting instead a glimpse at the city’s life that tourists don’t experience. Licia Maglietta and Bruno Ganz are irresistible if unconventional romantic figures, and the contrast between their thoughtful personalities and the cartoonish Mimmo and Cosantino makes for a pleasant menage.

“Bread and Tulips” was well received when it first appeared. The attention was deserved.

Rosalba gives Cosantino the slip in a scene from "Bread and Tulips"

“Una programma granda”

October 3, 2009



Comcast generates its share of our junk mail, but we were tickled by the colorful flyer that arrived today, offering us programming from Italy for $9.95 a month.
This service is not something we need, but one of the shows listed caught our eye — a quiz called “Affari Tuoi,” which means “Your Affairs” or — more to the point of the show — “Your Business.” This show is a knock-off of Howie Mandel’s “Deal or No Deal,” but — not surprisingly — it has a kind of abandon that the American show lacks.  At least it seemed that way to us when we visited my kinfolk last year and found that they had become addicted to it. They time their evening meal to coincide with “Affari Tuoi,” which is on all week.


The popularity of this show — which has counterparts in other countries — couldn’t have been hurt any by the host who ran the proceedings when we were last in Italy — a charismatic actor named Flavio Insinna. He’s a show all by himself, constantly in motion, alternately counseling and egging on the contestants, and slipping into high drama whenever he took a phone call from the “dottore” upstairs. He was not the original emcee and he has left the show since we were last in Italy. Too bad. He made Mandel look like a funeral director by comparison.
As for my relatives, when we first visited them more than 30 years ago, they barely watched television at all. If anyone had told us that they would ever be glued to the screen, we’d have laughed it off. But on one of our later visits, we found that their daily routine included Barbara Stanwyck in “The Virginians” to accompany the midday meal. Now the evenings are almost totally consumed by “Affari Tuoi” and another quiz show that follows it, plus an hour or so of news. They’re on their third television set and they have a VCR now. They still don’t have central heat, but measuring progress is a subjective exercise at best.
You can see Flavio Insinna cutting up on “Affari Tuoi” at this link:

All together, now ….

August 25, 2009



Back in June, Michael Kinsley wrote in the Washington Post that the United States needs a new national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable, according to Kinsley, and some of its lyrics are offensive. This is hardly an original idea, and it is likely to go as far this time as it has in the past.

But meanwhile, Michael Kinsley, meet Umberto Bossi. Bossi is a senator in Italy, and he is campaigning to get Italy to dump its national anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”). Bossi thinks the current anthem is a musical mediocrity, and he doesn’t like a line that refers to the nation as “You whom God created as a slave of Rome.” Correspondent Anna Momigliano, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, agrees with Bossi, arguing that the lyric “we are ready to die if Italy calls” is a heavy burden for millions of school children who probably sing the anthem more often than most Italians.

Tagliabue Editore 0116 - Verdi - Va pensieroBossi doesn’t seem to care what replaces the present anthem, but he has suggested that an operatic piece would at least improve the quality of the music. He has suggested one chorus in particular, “Va, pensiero” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.” This song is widely known in Italy; in fact, it was adapted into a popular song. That’s not Bossi’s rationale, though. He says no one would understand the words anyway, but that the music is nice. Bossi, apparently, is a practical man.

“Va, pensiero” is sung in the opera by a chorus of Hebrew slaves during the Babylonian Captivity. The lyrics refer in part to Psalm 137 (“On the willows there, we hung up our harps ….”). How this applies to modern Italy, I am not aware. Bossi, by the way, is the same chap who has proposed that northern Italy secede from the rest of the republic.

You can read Anna Momigliano’s column at this link:

You can read Michael Kinsley’s column at this link:

120px-No_Left_Turn.svgOne of my favorite encounters with the unique Italian mentality involved a police officer who was trying to give me driving directions to the Piazza di Venezia in Rome. He repeated the directions several times, but each time I was stumped when he said, “You’ll see a sign that says ‘don’t turn left.’ Turn left.’ ” Finally, he became frustrated with me and told me to follow him with my car while he walked me through the first part of the trip. At the end of a narrow street – an alley, really – he turned toward the car and held up both hands. He walked over to the driver’s widow, pointed at the universal symbol displayed on the street corner, and asked, “Si vede il segno che significa non girare a sinistra?” Yes, I said, I could see the sign that meant “don’t turn left.” “Beh!” he said. “Svoltare a sinistra!!” 


The Christian Science Monitor has interesting reviews of several books and a web site that explore various aspects of the signs that tell us where we should or can or should not or cannot go. It’s at this link:



It’s only May, but I’ve already chosen my favorite political candidate of this year. It’s Maria Donati, who is running for a seat on the municipal council in Saludecio, a little town in the Italian province of Rimini. Signora Donati is 102 years old. According to a story in the newspaper “Il Resto del Carlino,” civic leaders in the town at first asked the signora if she was insane when she offered herself as a candidate, but then – by their own account – they pondered the ancient motto “Chi si ferma e perduto” – “Whoever stops is lost” – and changed their minds.

Sgna. Donati – popularly known as “Nonna Maria” – grew up in a large family in the Republic of San Marino. In fact, the elected officials in Saludecio now include many of her relatives. During World War II, the Nazis deported her husband, Poverelli Aurellio, to Germany. Although she was pregnant, and although the region was under air attack, she rode a bicycle to the headquarters of the Wehrmacht to badger authorities there about her spouse’s status. They were reunited after about a year.



The implication of the story in “Il Resto del Carlino” is that Nonna Maria never sits still as it is. She lives with her nephew and keeps busy with cooking and other chores around the house, but otherwise is likely to be off visiting neighbors – and now she will be involved in evening meetings with the other candidates.

Matteo de Angelis, who wrote the story, commented at the end that Nonna Maria’s candidacy shows that “nonostante l’età, tutto è possibile” – in spite of age, all things are possible. Stories like this  always remind me of George Abbott, who died in 1995 at the age of 107. At the time, he was in the midst of revising the second act of ”The Pajama Game,” which he had written in 1954.

“Even at my age,” Nonna Maria said, “it is possible to propose many ideas.” And she might have said, especially at her age.

La dolce vita.

April 30, 2009



The defection of Arlen Specter, the impending confirmation of Al Franken, and the general disarray of the Republican Party all make for absorbing political drama. But for humor, the bunch in Washington have nothing on the Italians. The latest Over There is that Veronica Lario, the wife of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has publicly repudiated what she construes as her husband’s plan to trot out a team of female TV stars and a former beauty queen as candidates in the June elections in the European Union.

Lario, a former actress who knows about such things, said her sposo was exhibiting a “lack of discretion in his exercise of power which offends the credibility of all women.”

And she’s not being selfish about this. “I want it to be quite clear that my children and I are victims and not accomplices in this situation,” she said. “We have to endure it, and it makes us suffer.” (Note to the stimatissima signora, keep a close eye on those kiddies when they’re surfing the web. Some of those photos of you senza vestiti could be counterproductive while you’re protecting their moral character.)




Berlusconi’s version of this is that his party wants “to renew our political class with people who are cultivated and well prepared” — unlike the “malodorous and badly dressed people who represent certain parties in Parliament.” Not that it’s all about appearances – capisce? 

According to The Times of London, this isn’t the first time the two have had – come si chiama? – “political” disagreements in public. Two years ago, it seems, la Prima Donna wrote an open letter to Berlusconi demanding an apology “after he was overheard telling Mara Carfagna, a former topless model and variety show presenter, that if he were single he would marry her straight away,” the Times reported today. Berlusconi did apologize, but he then included Carfagna as a candidate in last year’s national elections, and, when the party had won,  appointed her – no doubt to demonstrate his committment to gender equality – minister for equal opportunities. 









vietato_fumareCorriere della Sera is reporting today on a bill in the Italian legislature that would, among other things, require cigarette manufacturers to insert in each pack a leaflet identifying specific substances, including metals, that are present in the products and that may cause cancer. The bill also would ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18, require retailers to ask customers for IDs, and prohibit smoking in schools, including secondary schools. Smoking in schools is already illegal, but the law in that regard is widely ignored – something those familiar with Italian society won’t find surprising.

This bill is part of an ongoing government campaign against smoking in Italy, about 32.6 percent of men and 20.7 of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are smokers. The newspaper reported that the average starting age of smokers is 13, but seven out of ten smokers start when they are 12.

94px-italian_pack I can’t help thinking of a man whose last name was Romeo (pronounced ro-MAY-oh) who used to frequent my grandfather’s grocery store. Mr. Romeo was blind and made his way around town with a cane. We used to keep a stock of these little Italian cigars that only he would buy. But I don’t know where else he would have bought them, given his circumstances, and I don’t think he would have had much reason to live if he couldn’t smoke them. Heaven only knows what he was inhaling, but we wouldn’t have recognized him without one of those little stogies in his mouth. They stunk like hell, but they gave him a certain panache.

This story also reminds me of Nicola Mariano, our back-to-back neighbor, a man who had only one arm. He used to smoke De Nobili tobacco in his pipe. We had a similar relationship with Nick in that we stocked that tobacco just for him. Most people in their right minds wouldn’t have smoked that stuff even in those  days before smokers were officially designated as lepers. But Nick wouldn’t have been Nick if he didn’t wile way a summer  afternoon sitting on the bread box in front of our store, with that reeking pipe between his teeth, making wisecracks at our customers as they came and went.

My paternal grandfather wasn’t a smoker – at least, not while I knew him. One of the things he left behind was his army handbook. That would be the army of King Emanuel II, in which Grandpa served between 1906 and 1909. One piece of advice that the handbook offered the dashing young soldiers was that “lo smoderato fumare danneggia la salute” – intemperate smoking damages (one’s) health. By now we know that even moderate smoking can be lethal to the smoker and possibly those around him, but we would have had a hard time convincing Mr. Romeo and Nick, both of whom died in their 90s, and enjoyed themselves whilst they waited.