The Salt of Life (Gianni e la donne)


The Salt of Life

Gianni di Gregorio points at what he wants most in life.

(2011) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Aylin Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

 

When a certain age is reached, people tend to become invisible to the opposite sex – transparent, as one character ruefully comments in this Italian comedy. The tendency is for us to fight against this marginalization and assert our own sexual potency, particularly in the male of the species.

Gianni di Gregorio, who co-wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, has reached that age. He is a pleasant, willing sort who was forced, unwilling, into retirement years ago (although for what reason it is never said). His laid-back, low-key and giving nature are constantly taken advantage of by the women in his life, particularly his nonagenarian mother (Bendoni) who fritters away her life savings while her son scrapes by. She constantly calls her son to come visit her to basically wait on her hand and foot, while her caregiver Kristina (Cepraga) is given designer dresses and jewelry to wear.

Gianni’s wife (Piccolomini) is cordial towards him, although she does belittle him for having nothing to do. Her earnings and Gianni’s pension are barely enough to make ends meet. Still, they have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, although the two of them sleep in separate bedrooms and essentially lead separate lives. With them lives their daughter (Teresa de Gregorio), who is stressed with university exams, and her slacker boyfriend Michi (Ciminale) who seems to spend more time with Gianni than with his girlfriend.

Rome has always been filled with attractive women and Gianni is surrounded by them – besides Kristina there’s Gianni’s ex-girlfriend Valeria (Cavalli) who is newly available and seems to adore him, his neighbor Aylin (Prandi) who professes to be madly in love with him but that seems to be mainly because he is willing to walk her St. Bernard for her and run errands for her while she sleeps off a hangover from yet another night of partying. None of them seem to have much more than a playful flirtation in mind for him and he wonders if he missed out on the romance in life. This spirals him into a mild depression.

Gianni’s best friend and lawyer (Santagata) notices Gianni’s melancholy and advises him to take on a mistress. Gianni warms to the idea – even some of the most decrepit men in his neighborhood have one – and seems to fear the idea of becoming the lonely old man who walks his dog in a Trastevere park every day. But how to go about it?

This is not really a sequel to di Gregorio’s last film, Mid-August Lunch (which I saw at the 2010 Florida Film Festival and it wound up on my list of Ten Best Films that year) so much as it is a continuation. There are several of the same characters in that movie including Santagata and Gianni’s mom. It carries with it the same inner charm and sweetness that the first movie carried.

As in that movie, Gianni is something of a pushover, blandly murmuring “certainly, certainly” when asked to do something by the various women in the movie. Yet when he decides to do something it become woefully obvious he doesn’t have game by modern standards. He is courtly and charming but lacks passion and confidence, something most women look for. He is a hand kisser in an age of ass grabbers. He is so inept at wooing the women around him that one wonders how he got married and managed to sire a daughter.

Gianni has that woeful hangdog look, and his melancholy is palpable throughout the film. He  is aware of the bags under his eyes and although not an un-handsome man, he is no Giancarlo Giannini. In many ways, he is the man most women like to affectionately complain about – somewhat befuddled, a little inept and lost without the women in his life.

The sun-dappled streets of Trastevere are charming and alluring in their own way. Even though Gianni isn’t in the best of financial shape, he still leads an enviable lifestyle; eating well, drinking often and not having to go to work every day. Still, there’s something missing for him, something that leads him to stray onto trails he doesn’t know and isn’t sure where they’re going to lead him.

It seems odd to root for someone to cheat on their wives but it is important to remember that mistresses occupy a different place in Italian culture than in our own. Not that it’s accepted so much as politely ignored. Here, it’s a major no-no so American audiences might have trouble getting behind Gianni’s quest.

Still, this is delightful, laid-back, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. Di Gregorio makes the difficult art of comedy seem effortless, and that’s the mark of a real master. In a landscape littered by raunchy comedies by Judd Apatow and his wanna-bes, this is a refreshing change. Not that I don’t enjoy Apatow’s films or raunchy comedies in general but it’s nice to have variety and isn’t that the salt of life?

REASONS TO GO: Gentle and charming.  Has a sweet sexiness that American films rarely capture.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni lacks inertia. Hard to root for a guy trying to cheat on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo and a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actress playing Gianni’s daughter is in fact his real life daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch

ROME LOVERS: This movie is set in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and is the Rome not of tourists but the city where Romans actually live. One gets a real sense of the lifestyle of those who live there.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Raid: Redemption

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto)


Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto)

Lunch is served.

(Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria di Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Cali, Grazia Cesarini Sforza, Alfonso Santagata, Luigi Marchetti, Marcello Ottolenghi, Petre Rosu, Biagio Ursitti. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

Holidays are times to be with family. This is a fairly universal concept; no matter whether you are from India or Indochina or Italy or Indianapolis, this holds true – at least, most of the time.

Gianni (di Gregorio) is a middle-aged slacker. He is chronically unemployed and spends most of his time taking care of his demanding mother (di Franciscis), reading to her from Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” while she constantly interrupts about questions about D’Artagnan’s physical appearance. Apparently, his hooked nose would be a deal-killer for her. Mama has the look of Sylvia Miles in her Beetlejuice appearance, three years after she died. No, it’s not a particularly flattering look.

Gianni is a good-natured sort, friendly with everybody and well-known for being an excellent home chef. However, he hasn’t paid the rent for his ramshackle Rome apartment (although it is identified in the subtitles as a condominium, a flat is what it is) in months, his electric bill hasn’t been paid in three years. Alfonso (Santagata), the resident’s association administrator, comes to Gianni’s apartment to talk about the situation. Both Gianni and his mother are terrified.

However, Alfonso has a solution. It is a holiday weekend in Italy, Ferragosto – a Catholic holiday marking the occasion of Mary’s ascension into heaven. It is the middle of August and the heat is oppressive. Most sensible Romans head out of town to find a place in the north or at least in the mountains or by the sea where relief from the oppressive heat of late summer Italy can be found. There’s no question but that Gianni and his mama will be spending the holiday at home but Alfonso needs someone to watch over his own mama Marina (Cacciotti). If Gianni would be willing to do that for a few days, Alfonso would see to it that his debts would be forgiven. Gianni is not in a position to refuse, despite his misgivings.

The next day, Alfonso bring over his mama – and as an extra added bonus, his Aunt Maria (Cali). Gianni is mortified at the extra guest but after Alfonso gives him a little extra for expenses, he reluctantly relents. Mama puts on her best face and greets the guests with as much hospitality as she can muster which admittedly isn’t very much. She prefers isolation to socialization and makes sure Gianni knows it.

Afterwards, the family doctor (Ottolenghi) comes by to examine Mama – and Gianni, who thinks he might have a hernia (he just has a hernia of the head, as the doc exclaims). For services rendered, the doctor implores Gianni to take in his mother overnight for the holiday because he has to work at the hospital. Gianni, past the point of resisting, agrees. Why not? What difference is one more old hen going to make for the chicken coop?

All four women have strong personalities. Marina likes to smoke and get drunk, and when she’s drunk she makes a pass at Gianni. The doctor’s mother, Grazia (Sforza), has a restricted diet which she breaks at every turn, particularly with the macaroni casserole that Gianni and Maria are making which is slathered with cheese and tomato sauce, both of which were specifically forbidden by Grazia’s doctor son. Mama wants to dine alone and have as little to do with the unwanted guests as possible. Maria disagrees with everything. Gianni is at wit’s end. How is he going to manage this terrible holiday?

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. It is charming, heartwarming and deeply Italian; I almost guarantee you that you’ll be craving a nice plate of pasta and a glass of good wine by the time the movie’s over. Di Gregorio, who wrote, starred in and directed Mid-August Lunch, based the movie on his own experiences caring for his elderly mother.

Most of the actors are non-professionals, many of them personal acquaintances of di Gregorio. In fact, the apartment that the movie mostly takes place in is di Gregorio’s own home. How much more personal can a film be?

The movie has a sweet quality that will improve your mood from beginning to end. It is also laugh-out-loud funny with a humor that is sly and earthy in places, gentle and sweet in others. Being an Italian film, there is a shot of someone riding a Vespa down the street which is apparently some sort of national mandate.

The only drawback here is Gianni himself. He seems to drift aimlessly through the movie in a pleasant haze of white wine (which he consumes by the gallon). He resembles the late Jerry Ohrbach crossed with Roberto Benigni from a facial standpoint and shuffles through most of the film wearing flip flops and an amiable smile. While it’s difficult to really relate to Gianni, it’s still pleasant enough to spend time with him.  

Mid-August Lunch has won several festival awards, including the prestigious Venice Film Festival’s award for Best Film. While American critics haven’t really come on board this movie for the most part, that’s a bit of a crying shame. This is the kind of movie that really has no other aspiration other than to make its audience feel better collectively and perhaps make a gentle comment on aging. Regardless, this is one lunch that I advise you not to miss.

REASONS TO GO: A charming and heartwarming slice of life. While there are many laugh-out-loud moments, you will come away feeling better than when you went in.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni drifts a bit too much to be a compelling lead.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild sensuality in one scene and a good deal of wine drinking, but otherwise perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Di Gregorio also wrote the bloody mafia epic Gomorrah.

HOME OR THEATER: Having already received its New York release in mid-March, this will be decidedly difficult to see in theaters (unless it’s playing in a local film festival). However, this intimate comedy will work very nicely on home video.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Dynamite Warrior