Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Salt Of Life (Gianni e le Donne)

A Man Isolated By His Kindness And Desires

Gianni Di Gregorio as Gianni, under the watchful eyes of on screen mother Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni in Mr. Di Gregorio's comedy "The Salt Of Life". 
Zeitgeist Films


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, April 1
, 2012

Billed as a sequel to his fine 2008 frolic "Mid-August Lunch", Gianni Di Gregorio's new comedy "The Salt Of Life" is precisely titled.  If variety is the spice of life, its flavors marinating through time, then salt is the bitter wound that spikes the heart, and in this case it's the film's director, star and co-writer whose character feels the sting.  Mr. Di Gregorio's witty, wry comedic story of a man Gianni (Mr. Di Gregorio) looking for a new lease on life and love is bitter sweet, affecting and endearing. 

In Trastevere, Rome, a put-upon Gianni is still at the beck and call of his affectionate nuisance mother (the wonderful Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni) and at 60-something he's an errand-boy for Valeria (Valeria Cavalli), a beautiful young neighbor whose dog he routinely walks.  Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), a good friend and lawyer, tells Gianni, a married man and father, to get out and smell the roses and live a little: after all, an old geezer in town is having a little affair with a corner street grocery clerk.  This nugget of information leads Gianni to evaluate himself: at 60 is he still noticeable to the ladies?

More sharply executed and less free-flowing and intimate than "Mid-August Lunch", "The Salt Of Life" is a colder film, a stark look at an older man trapped by loneliness and isolated by his own acts of kindness.  Gianni gives so selflessly and is relentlessly praised and taken for granted by the women in his life, led by his mother.  Yet his heart is empty.  Sometimes Gianni stands forlorn and unhappy.  Gianni drinks and daydreams, but most of all he simply wants a woman to recognize him for who he is as a person, not for what he does.  Gianni is surrounded by women, almost all of whom dwarf him with their patronizing of him, viewing him as a grandfather or figure of irrelevance -- except for when it comes to fixing a television that goes on the blink.

Each of the major women in the film appear to be inordinately satisfied and happy with life, and not involved with men in particular, furthering their eligibility to Gianni.  Somehow, Gianni is tentative, at times a spectator in his own pedestrian and petite life dramas.

"The Salt Of Life", which expanded its theatrical release to additional U.S. cities on Friday, is a clever reverse on the issue that women the world over ask themselves in a sexist, ageist and hyper image-conscious society: "am I still seriously viable to men as a emotional and romantic partner once my forties and fifties are in the rear-view mirror?"  The tricky dance Mr. Di Gregorio employs here is to almost exclusively show women 20-30 years his junior as a barometer answer to the $64,000 question of viability, as opposed to women his own age -- an implicit ageism in itself -- made so when considering the false notion, held by many, that the spice of life isn't ordinarily found for a 60-year-old with a romantic partner of the same age group. 

Younger women flirt with Gianni but the flirtation is less amorous than polite.  There's a telling scene where Gianni talks to his teenage daughter's boyfriend Michelangelo (Michelangelo Ciminale).  Michelangelo asks if his girlfriend (Teresa Di Gregorio) has talked about dumping him.  Gianni's response crystallizes his own doubts about whether women have dumped him as a romantic possibility.  It's a subtle moment of projection.  Mr. Di Gregorio breathes life into his weathered character, who feels, sees but keeps mostly to himself.  He's a difficult read to other characters in the film but the actor-director's sad eyes express his weary character's wounded heart.  It's a performance resounding in its sense of silence and tranquility, a quietly observed yet palpable rendering.  That the good actors here, including the director, play characters with names the same as their own real-life names adds further credibility to the story co-written by Valerio Attanasio.

Mr. Di Gregorio's film often plays as dream fantasy, head trip and parody of "the old boy's still got it", with groups of gorgeous, attractive 25 and 30-year-old women batting eyelids at Gianni in one playful sequence.  That fantasy meets head-on with the film's cold reality that even with a life of relative contentment Gianni at 60 can likely expect to hardly be given a second look by the opposite sex.  He spends much of the film craning his neck at sleek mini-skirted ladies who pass by on the street as if he's following a tennis ball travelling back and forth over a net.  He's human.  He's a man.  Gianni has a pulse and a good heart, and he's viable to himself.  He knows he's a good man, a loving father and a caring husband.  It's not so much that he's looking to cheat; he's simply seeks acknowledgement.  Gianni tests the waters not for revenge or ego boost but for satisfaction and his own quest for existential inquiry and discovery. 

"The Salt Of Life" is an identifiable film for men and women alike, and while it doesn't take itself especially seriously, there are moments of truth that hit hard and deep, and a sadness and despair that ring loudly, which I left me dour but appreciative.  Throughout the film casts a shadowy pall over its lead man.  I hadn't expected "The Salt Of Life" to conclude the way it did, and I'm glad it didn't.  Other films of this genre would have made the end easy, false, cliched and digestible, but Mr. Di Gregorio, a good actor and an able director in this his second feature directing effort, is much smarter than that.  He leaves us something to think about and discuss.  You can't help but feel for his onscreen alter ego.

With: Elisabetta Piccolomini, Alyn Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato.

"The Salt Of Life" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  It contains mild sensuality.  The film is in the Italian language with English language subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and thirty minutes.

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