Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie Review: Gianni e le donne [The Salt of Life]

Gianni Di Gregorio’s second feature film The Salt of Life is billed as a comedy, but there’s an inherent sadness in this tale of a late middle aged Roman man taking a second stab in life at finding happiness through pleasures of the flesh. The film, written and directed by Di Gregorio, is a sequel to his 2010 comedy Mid-August Lunch. Not having seen the first film, I can attest that it’s hardly a prerequisite to enjoying the second.

Di Gregorio also stars as Gianni, the man who is uncomfortable in his advancing years and reservedly desperate for the affections of women. He’s got lots of women in his life, all of whom are happy to lavish attention on him when there’s something in it for them, otherwise they generally ignore him. He’s got a twenty-something daughter who lives at home with him and his ex-wife (this is an assumption based on the nature of their relationship and may be one detail better illuminated by seeing Mid-August Lunch). There’s a young and beautiful neighbor downstairs who gives him kisses and hugs whenever Gianni stops by to take her dog for a walk. In his hopes and dreams, his best chance for some fleeting happiness is with Valeria, the woman he could have married, but didn’t. They share one of the film’s sweetest scenes in which they wistfully reminisce about the past and what they didn’t end up having.

Gianni is too shy and too polite to overtly hit on any of the women that come into his life. All he’ll allow himself is the occasional glance down a low-cut blouse or a brief caress of a hand. The advantage they take of him is partially his own doing. He’s the embodiment of that adage about nice guys finishing last. His brash friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) is much more forward in his attempts. In one of the funniest scenes, Gianni and Alfonso take two beautiful young women out to lunch, indulging them with wine, food and stories of Gianni’s (non-existent) vineyard in Friuli only to see them drive off in the end.

Sucking up the greatest amount of Gianni’s time and energy is his mother (Valeria De Franciscis). The elderly woman has a habit of phoning Gianni to complain of illnesses that turn out to be minor: “Mama, 99 degrees is not a fever.” Coincidentally, these calls tend to come when her caretaker Cristina has her day off. Gianni has the kind of relationship with his mother that could conservatively be described as one in which the cord has not yet been cut. Maybe there’s also something uncharitable in his indulgences as he awaits his inheritance. His mother is wealthy, but does foolish (in Gianni’s view) things like putting on lavish lunch dates with her girlfriends and leaving half-finished bottles of 200 euro champagne sitting around. Then she makes a financial decision that eliminates all of Gianni’s hopes for any future happiness.

Di Gregorio is a screenwriter whose most significant work has been the Italian crime drama Gomorrah. Like the rest of his cast (who share their names with their characters) he is not a professional actor, but he brings a wonderful down-to-earth feeling to Gianni. There’s nothing flashy in any of the performances. The 96-year-old De Franciscis is especially good. On the surface she’s a doddering old woman who needs constant care and attention, but she brings enough to the role to hint that she knows exactly how manipulative she can be.

It’s a beautifully paced film that takes its time getting where it’s going. The scenes play out about as close to real life as you could ask from a movie. In the end it’s not ground breaking creation. It’s not very likely to stand any stringent test of time, but in this moment it’s a lovely confection of a film. Gianni doesn’t quite know where his life is headed, but at least when he’s unable to find what he thinks is happiness in life, he does come to a conclusion that could leave his content, if not entirely satisfied. The bittersweet truth of life is that that’s probably the end result for most people. It’s nothing to feel disappointed about, but it is true.

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