The Salt of Life
With his extraordinary debut Mid-August Lunch, Gianni di Gregorio simultaneously established himself as an actor, writer and director to watch. The Salt of Life, which reuses Gianni’s character and a couple of the others without strictly speaking being a sequel, expands upon his first film to further explore the fraught relationships between Gianni (Gianni the character, not Gianni the real person. Although they’re sort of the same anyway. Anyway) and the variety of women in his life. It’s quite, quite brilliant.
Gianni (Di Gregorio) is a bit of a mess, if we’re honest. He lives with his wife (from whom he is separated), his daughter and her layabout boyfriend, and spends his days visiting his mother (De Franciscis Bendoni) in her cripplingly expensive care home because her TV is on the fritz again. His life is unsatisfying enough as it is, but what really galls him is the fact that everywhere he looks older and more decrepit men than he are carrying on with beautiful young women. Why shouldn’t Gianni find a lovely young squeeze to bring some sunshine back into his life? After all, he knows loads of women!
Unfortunately, none of them quite fit the bill. His mother’s beautiful Eastern European housekeeper (Kristina Cepraga) is unreceptive to his charms – although she’s happy to spend the huge bonuses and wear the designer clothes which her generous employer gives her from Gianni’s meagre pension – and the girl in the flat downstairs happy recounts a dream in which Gianni appeared as her grandfather. Then there’s his friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), a slightly crooked lawyer whose thirst for female companionship is almost as emphatic as Gianni’s and a lot more expensive. a As Gianni’s loneliness and money worries fight for control of him, one wonders if tutte le donne were worth it…
Stylistically The Salt of Life is an unparallelled treat, sliding the viewer straight into dusty middle-class Rome and leaving them to wander about. A mix of stylised long shots and bumpy handheld closeups highlight the slightly heightened atmosphere of the film and the blending of formal and casual cinematography mirrors the semi-autobiographical nature of Di Gregorio’s films – it always feels as if he’s doing his own thing much as he would offscreen. (This turned out to be bang on the money – more in our interview with Gianni Di Gregorio, due onsite tomorrow). The supporting cast is reliable, with 95 year old Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni reprising her role as Gianni’s mother with wit and grace and Michelangelo Ciminale proving surprisingly sympathetic as his daughter’s boyfriend.
It all comes back to Di Gregorio, though. Gianni is everything we’re led to believe an Italian man shouldn’t be – he’s browbeaten by his wife, hopelessly obedient to his mother, gracious when he should be lecherous and completely unfamiliar with bunga bunga parties. In less deft hands he could have been just another dirty old man, but Di Gregorio manages to sustain his creation as both an everyman and a subversion of the romantic hero.
It’s hard to believe that such engaging direction and charming writing come from the hopelessly endearing Gianni as he shuffles about the place, a cigarette dangling from his hangdog face and another disaster just around the corner. This is a film which addresses the ageing process with panache and tenderness in equal measure, and I suspect it’s one which owes part of its charm to Di Gregorio’s relative inexperience – perhaps if he had found his vocation thirty years ago he’d not be able to bring such an uncomplicated and vividly realised story to life. There are weak points, certainly (I’ve still not got my head around the mad, frothing, hallucinogenic final scene), but they’re few and far between compared to the sheer number of moments which will make you grin or sniffle.
I genuinely can’t wait to see what Gianni Di Gregorio does next. Mid-August Lunch took him a decade to write because it took a decade to happen – The Salt of Life abruptly appeared over a year or so. Gianni refused to confirm to me whether or not a third outing for his Monsieur Hulot-esque alter ego was on the cards, but I do hope so. There are more adventures out there for Gianni, and I can’t wait to see them.