The Salt of Life: Film Review

A timeless comedy about aging, for all ages.

In his sophomore outing, 62-year-old Gianni Di Gregorio proves that the delicate touch and comic understatement of his acclaimed 2008 directorial debut, Mid-August Lunch, were anything but beginner's luck. In The Salt of Life, the actor-writer-director again plays his own alter ego, and gives us another deceptively small, vaguely autobiographical story with universal resonance, in more technically assured packaging.

The film's Italian title (Gianni and the Women) and domestic trailer give the idea of yet another local comedy (or newspaper headline) about lusty old men chasing busty young women. Happily, the ambling, quietly contemplative The Salt of Life is nothing of the kind.

The same, broad festival and arthouse audiences that gushed over by Mid-August Lunch will eat up Salt, which resembles the first in tone but doesn't just cash in on a lucky formula. The added spice – more secondary characters, more melancholic chords – shows Di Gregorio's maturation as a filmmaker and despite the casual, verite atmosphere, there's nothing arbitrary in this wistful ode to women by a man who's becoming invisible to them. Especially not the casting.

Most of the actors play characters of their same name and whether they were chosen first or had parts written specifically for them, there's not a miscast one in the bunch. They all easily pull laughs from the deadpan dialogue, Di Gregorio most of all. He has the kind of innate comic timing that elicits chuckles even when he literally does nothing, and he's unafraid to bare himself – wrinkles, puffy eyes and all.

He again plays a character named Gianni, a variation on his previous protagonist. This Gianni is a 60-year-old pensioner who lives in a spacious apartment with a college-age daughter (Teresa Di Gregorio) who pities him and an amicable wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) who hasn't shared his bed in years. With little to do, and a meager pension to do it with, the mildly ambitious Gianni tends to the household chores and his women, including a beautiful young neighbor (Aylin Prandi) who's always flirting with him, though only half-seriously.

That's the problem, Gianni tells his friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), a lawyer forever looking to score: Women just don't notice him anymore, "not in that way."

Gianni's biggest burden in life is his demanding and wealthy widowed mother (delightfully petty nonagenarian Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, who also played Di Gregorio's mother in Mid-August Lunch). He's at her beck and call, and she calls often, even though she won't help him financially yet showers her Romanian caretaker (Kristina Cepraga) with designer clothes and overstocks her fridge with pricey champagne. No one in the family can stand grandma, even Gianni's high school sweetheart thinks his mother is the reason they never married, but Gianni can't get out from under her thumb.

After Kristina compares him to her grandfather and he discovers that one of the "crusty old guys" from his neighborhood bar has a lover, Gianni realizes he's desperate for some companionship and adventure – but it may be too late to do anything about it. Like in his previous film, Di Gregorio's main character is a man entering his twilight years who has, for better or for worse, always been at the mercy of women. Yet whether they'restrong, silly, manipulative or justifiably exhausted by Gianni's inexhaustible submission to his mamma, they're also magnificently elusive to him.

The director casts a knowing, and forgiving, gaze at the passing of time with the lightest of touches, without recrimination for any his characters. And with a bittersweet ending that doesn't pander to expectations but still feels hopeful.

Teresa Di Gregorio as Gianni's daughter, and Michelangelo Criminale as her slacker boyfriend are particularly good in a cast that features strong performances all around.

The core technical crew is the same as Mid-August Lunchand they're obviously working with bigger budgets. Especially director of photography Gogo Bianchi, whose photography is far more polished than their grainy first film together. Veteran editor Marco Spoletini often uses the scene changes to set up or deliver punch lines without becoming tiresome and the score by Ratchev and Carratello is again unobtrusively playful.

Opens (Italy): Friday, February 11 (01 Distribution)
Sales company: Fandango Portobello Sales
Production companies: BiBi Film, Isaria Productions, RAI Cinema
Cast: Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Teresa Di Gregorio, Aylin Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Criminale, Valeria Cavalli
Director: Gianni Di Gregorio
Screenwriters: Gianni Di Gregorio, Valerio Attanasio
Producer: Angelo Barbagallo
Director of photography: Gogo Bianchi
Production designer: Susanna Cascella
Music: Ratchev & Carratello
Costume designer: Silvia Polidori
Editor: Marco Spoletini
No rating, 88 minutes