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The Salt of Life explores the fading fires of desire

Gianni is attempting to have a wild love affair in an effort to spice up his life, but instead ends up hilariously and poignantly unsuccessful.

2.5 out of 4 stars


Gianni Di Gregorio's charming 2008 directorial debut, Mid-August Lunch, marked the debut of a writer-actor-comedian playing his alter-ego, the much put-upon Gianni, a gentlemanly Roman bachelor of around 60 who is obliged to care for his aged mother and her demanding friends over a late summer holiday.

With that film, Di Gregorio, a long-time screenwriter (including the 2008 crime drama Gomorrah) and assistant director, emerged as a kind of late-blooming Woody Allen, exploring romantic absurdities while celebrating the beauty of his neighbourhood, in this case Rome's Trastevere neighbourhood, with its cobbled streets, numerous cafés and medieval walk-up apartments.

His new film, The Salt of Life, is a sequel of sorts, although this time Di Gregorio plays a married man with a daughter, providing him with even more women to torment him (the Italian title is Gianni e le Donne, or Gianni and the Women). In this version, Gianni has been involuntarily retired for a decade and has come to feel that he might as well be invisible to women, who communicate with him when they need something.

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He and his wife (Elizabetta Piccolomini) sleep in separate rooms, and have few interactions beyond the shopping lists she hands him in the morning. They share their apartment with a college-aged daughter, Teresa (Teresa Di Gregorio, the director's actual daughter), who takes the breakfast Gianni has prepared for himself before rushing off to school. Also living with them, off and on, is Michelangelo (Michelangelo Ciminale), Teresa's unemployed boyfriend and Gianni's default companion. Each day, outside his apartment, Gianni takes his flirtatious downstairs neighbour's St. Bernard for a walk and witnesses his probable future: Old men sitting on plastic chairs outside a café, arguing sports and watching life go by.

One day, Gianni's lawyer Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) asks why Gianni hasn't made a play for his mother's beautiful young caregiver (Kristina Cepraga), or at least take a mistress "like every other Italian senior male." At first, Gianni rejects the idea as ridiculous, but a seed of desire is planted in his head, or other regions. Alfonso decides to set them up with a couple of his clients – identical blond twins. After Gianni and Alfonso have bought them an outrageously expensive lunch, the women wave ciao and head off home, leaving the would-be philanderers with the bill. A series of other ventures with potential partners end up in similar ignominy as Gianni discovers, repeatedly, that at best women treat him like a pet.

Most frustrating of all is Gianni's mother, played by the same actress who played his mother in Mid-August Lunch, the wonderfully imperious Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni. The now 96-year-old, dolled up like an 18{+t}{+h}-century French aristocrat, shows a crisp timing and dominating presence that belie her years. Oblivious to Gianni's hopes for an inheritance, Valeria (all characters have the actors' first names) is busy burning through her money, lavishing presents on hired help and keeping the refrigerator stocked with champagne for her poker-playing friends.

Meanwhile, Gianni ogles the hordes of beautiful women on the Roman streets, passing him in their summer dresses and slow-motion bouncing cleavage, while his neighbour's dog does his tongue-lolling for him.

Overall, The Salt of Life has more bite but less charm than Mid-August Lunch. Though you can empathize with Gianni's loneliness, the lecherous buffoon is too much of a stock type to feel fresh. At times, the comedy is shamelessly broad. In one scene, Alfonso forces a Viagra pill down Gianni's throat, causing havoc with his driving skills. In another, Gianni accidentally ingests a hallucinogen-spiked drink and ends up, at night, splashing in a fountain, an homage to Marcello Mastroianni's famous Trevi Fountain scene in La Dolce Vita.

The difference is that, instead of embracing Anita Ekberg as the modern incarnation of a pagan goddess, Gianni's only companion is his neighbour's confused St. Bernard.

The Salt of Life

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  • Directed by Gianni Di Gregorio
  • Written by Gianni Di Gregorio and Valerio Atanassio
  • Starring Gianni Di Gregorio , Elizabetta Piccolomini and Alfonso Santagata
  • Classification: PG
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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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