From left, Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, Kristina… (Zeitgeist Films )
Rueful, funny and wise, "The Salt of Life" is a comedy not of errors but of the tiniest of missteps. A warm yet melancholy film of quiet yet inescapable charm, it has a feeling for character and personality that couldn't be more delicious.
That a film as delicate, personal and small-scaled as "Salt of Life," directed and co-written by Italy's Gianni Di Gregorio, exists at all is a function of fate and chance. Di Gregorio, who also stars, acted as a young man before beginning what became an accomplished screenwriting career.
His success with co-writing the very different, gangster-themed "Gomorrah" gave Di Gregorio the opportunity to make 2008's delightful "Mid-August Lunch," a script he'd unsuccessfully shopped around for 10 years. A small, human-scaled film about the necessity of companionship in general and the bonding nature of shared food and glasses of wine in particular, it was an unexpected success and led directly to "Salt of Life."
Di Gregorio once again plays Gianni, a man of a certain age named after himself, who has to deal with a formidable mother, played in both films by the now 96-year-old force of nature Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, a woman with the bright clothing, big jewelry and blond wig of someone a third of her age.
Though they have similar character traits, Gianni and his mother have quite different back stories in both films. Here the mother, a self-centered spendthrift, lives with young caretaker Kristina (Kristina Cepraga) in an elaborate Roman mansion while her son lives in an apartment across town and has trouble making ends meet.
The ultimate accommodating child, Gianni is used to catering to his mother's every whim, even driving long distances to simply adjust a knob on her television. Always the gentleman, too polite to insist on anything, Gianni's impeccable manners have him saying "certo" (certainly) to almost any request.
Things at Gianni's apartment are not much of an improvement. Though he's married, his wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) has her own room and her own life, as does his daughter (Di Gregorio's real-life daughter Teresa). Forced into early retirement by his employer, Gianni is very much at loose ends, something his best friend and attorney Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) can't help but notice.
Himself a tireless womanizer, Alfonso tells Gianni he should have some romance in his life (the fact that he is already married doesn't seem to cross anyone's mind). It's a thought that Gianni has never had before.
Suddenly this middle-aged man starts to notice all the attractive women in his Trastevere neighborhood. When he realizes that even one of his ancient neighbors has a girlfriend, it seals the deal and Gianni starts to wonder whom the new flame in his life might be.
Would it be his mother's caretaker, Cristina, whom Alfonso characterizes as "a goddess?" His old girlfriend Valeria (Valeria Cavalli)? Or his neighbor, the vivacious party animal Aylin (Aylin Prandi)? Or maybe someone else entirely?
But just because Gianni is suddenly interested in women, just because he engages in desultory rooftop exercises to get into shape and even buys new clothes, that doesn't mean that women are necessarily interested in him. In fact, in this gentle world where everything is slightly askew, it might not mean anything at all.
Filmmaker Di Gregorio, who has given each of his people the same first name as the actors who play them, has an impeccable gift for character, for capturing the nuances of personality conveyed by an expressive array of quintessentially Italian faces, his own countenance being first among equals.
With a series of looks that range from resigned to fed up, Di Gregorio's sad, overmatched expressions make it impossible not to sympathize with him. "The Salt of Life" is finally not about chasing women so much as it is about a man realizing he is getting older and trying to figure out, with increasingly amusing desperation, what if anything can be done about it.