REVIEW: Italian Comedy The Salt of Life Proves You Just Never Get Over It — Whatever It Is
If the teenage hedonists of Project X want to see what’s in store for them in 40 years — and surely they don’t — they might have a look at Italian writer-director-actor Gianni Di Gregorio’s smart and none-too-sweet little comedy The Salt of Life, in which a 60-ish retiree living in Trastevere suddenly realizes that not a single woman — not his reasonably affectionate but matter-of-fact wife, nor his flirty young next door neighbor, nor any of his various old flames and acquaintances – is interested in sleeping with him. It’s also, to my knowledge, the only movie about the love lives of sexagenarians that closes with the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man.” This is a movie that’ll play great with the blue-haired crowd, and yet I suspect touches like that will go over the heads of the oldsters. The overarching, bittersweet vibe of The Salt of Life is that you just never, ever get over it — whatever the hell it is.
The Salt of Life is the follow-up to Di Gregorio’s surprise 2010 mini-hit Mid-August Lunch, in which some version of the character we meet here — a guy in late-middle age named Gianni, played by Di Gregorio himself — is forced into service cooking and otherwise waiting on his passive-aggressively demanding 90-something mother (played, with grand dame comic authority, by Valeria de Franciscis) and her equally wrinkly, chattery gal pals. Mid-August Lunch was Di Gregorio’s directorial debut. (He also wrote the screenplay for the 2008 drama Gomorrah.) And if it was the sort of movie to which you could take your mother — as well as your grandmother and your great-grandmother — it was also evidence that even safe, “nice” little movies, done right, can have a bit of the serpent’s bite in them. Di Gregorio has a light touch, but he never goes for the saccharine. Even when he stoops to making a Viagra joke — as he does in The Salt of Life — he can’t resist tipping it on its ear. And he refuses to overplay the moment — he ricochets off in another direction before you even know it.
In The Salt of Life, Gianni — once again played by Di Gregorio, who has the air of a lovelorn basset hound — can’t help noticing that all his salt-and-pepper-haired buddies seem to be dallying with beautiful younger women. Almost half-heartedly, he decides he might have a go at it himself: His wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini), who seems to want him around only to make Ikea runs, probably wouldn’t care. And his daughter (played by Di Gregorio’s daughter, Teresa) has her own love life to worry about; her ex-boyfriend (Michelangelo Ciminale) is still hanging around the family apartment, and, seemingly out of a lack of anything better to do, becomes Gianni’s pal and partner in crime.
In between fielding calls from his mother (de Franciscis, once again), who summons him to her home for important tasks like slapping the TV in order to get better reception, Gianni makes attempts with various younger cuties (nearly all of them, by the way, voluptuous in a way that you rarely see in American movies). He begins with his mother’s caretaker, Kristina (Kristina Cepraga), a captivating blonde goddess who eagerly tells him about a dream in which he played a significant role — as her grandfather. Then he moves on to an old acquaintance, Gabriella (played by mezzosoprano Gabriella Sborgi), who professes interest in him only to ignore him when he shows up, flowers in tow, at her house while she’s busy rehearsing. Old-flame Valeria (Valeria Cavalli) is thrilled to see him, but falls asleep on the couch before their date can ignite. And that vivacious next-door-neighbor, Aylin (Aylin Prandi), adores him but not quite in that way — she's deeply appreciative of the way he's always stopping by to walk her Saint Bernard, Riccardo.
Di Gregorio (who also wrote the script) has set up a stock scenario for sure. But it’s what he does with it, and the way he tosses in casual but significant grace notes, that makes all the difference. Di Gregorio — who seems to be carrying the full weight of unrequited sexual desire in the cartoonishly heavy bags under his eyes — specializes in self-deprecation, especially when it comes to machismo. (And this is Italian machismo we’re talking about — not for the faint of heart.) When Gianni dons a new suit and struts past his buddies — they sit outside in their tracksuits, talking about football and women, possibly in that order — one of them remarks, “He must have a date!” only to have another retort, “He’s probably going to a christening.” He does, in fact, have a date, but the suit doesn’t help him much.
Gianni’s inability to get anything started isn’t just a running gag — it’s the picture’s backbone, although Di Gregorio keeps the action and the jokes lissome and fluid, rather than locking them into a rigid formula. As actor, director and writer, he approaches the idea of ever-present longing with the suppleness of a dancer. On the surface, The Salt of Life may seem like a movie made just for old folks. The trick is that it really is about the youth that stays with you, even when your aging body is working hard to convince you otherwise.