“The Salt of Life,” Gianni Di Gregorio’s follow-up to the sleeper hit “Mid-August Lunch,” is about a man caught between the sensual and the inevitable. Again, Di Gregorio plays an alternate version of himself, this time an aging retiree stuck in a limbo between the desires and pleasures of his former youth and the doddering idleness of old age.
Gianni is a man of epicurean tastes. He is captivated by the lovely women who pop out at him from every corner of his life—his mother’s buxom caretaker, his young flirtatious neighbor, and a seemingly endless parade of pedestrian beauties. Gianni mourns his waning vitality, and is haunted by the idea that he has become invisible. Increasingly, the world appears to him as a tantalizing buffet to which he is no longer invited.
In Gianni’s actual relationships with women, including his sexless marriage, he plays the role of errand boy/caretaker. The most imposing woman in Gianni’s life is his 96 year old mother (Valeria De Franciscis of Mid-August Lunch), whose aristocratic lifestyle and incessant demands are exhausting his patience as well as his inheritance.
Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), Gianni’s friend and lawyer, urges him to be more aggressive in his pursuit of a young mistress. “Don’t you like girls anymore?” he queries. At one point—in a brilliant and funny scene—Alfonso practically forces a Viagra down Gianni’s throat and sends him off to a brothel. But Gianni isn’t like Alfonso, and it becomes apparent that what Gianni is missing has little to do with his fading animal magnetism.
In a touching scene, Gianni meets with a former girlfriend (Valeria Cavalli), clearly the love of his life. They are interrupted by a call from his mother, worried that she has a fever. “98.9 is not a fever!” Gianni has an idea of what came between him and his love.
From early on, Gianni begins to take little stabs at self-assertion—spending his pension check on a nice suit, politely confronting his young neighbor about her loud parties, resisting his wife’s demands regarding a dreaded trip to IKEA, and so on. His adventure in self-discovery reaches a high point when an accidental psychedelic experience completely unhinges him from his domestic concerns.
Di Gregorio takes the same stylistic approach to “The Salt of Life” as he did with “Mid-August Lunch,” the hand-held photography, non-professional actors, and warm natural lighting that make for his peculiar brand of realism. The score by Ratchev and Caratello, reminiscent of Nino Rota, is a pleasure in its own right. The one major disappointment is the final scene—a feel-good montage depicting Gianni’s fantasies of food and women, mostly women. Curiously, it is set to the Pixies tune “There Goes Your Man”—a sharp turn from Ratchev and Caratello’s Italian melodies. It’s not only aesthetically incongruent, but at odds with the narrative—an evolving character is reduced to daydreamer. Fortunately, the final sequence doesn’t take away from the rest of the film, which stands on its own as a charming slice-of-life comedy.
Di Gregorio’s contribution to cinema today is his ability to tell a simple story about real people. His auteurist creations remind us that there is something wonderful in the stuff of everyday life. He seduces with authenticity—in “The Salt of Life” Gianni examines the bags under his eyes in the bathroom mirror, poking at the sagging skin with a dry curiosity; it’s matter-of-fact, perversely intimate, yet funny at the same time. There is a lighthearted depth to “Mid-August Lunch” and “Salt of Life” that soaks-in gradually—his stories are the kind that stick with you. Hopefully, we will see more from Gianni Di Gregorio.