Mama’s boy

The slow-paced Italian film ‘Salt of Life’ still has some spice.

Salt of Life film (photo credit: Courtesy)
Salt of Life film
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you’re looking for a movie to see this summer and you’re interested in computer-generated images, special effects and super heroes blowing up cars, you’re in luck. If you’d like to see a movie about actual human beings with problems you might relate to, it’s not so easy. While American filmmakers have pretty much abandoned small-scale personal dramas (except for a handful of indie films, which tend to be made by and about 20-somethings), European, Latin American and Asian filmmakers continue to embrace simpler stories.
Actor/director Gianni Di Gregorio’s The Salt of Life, which just opened throughout Israel, is a good example of this type of film.
Di Gregorio spent years acting, mostly on stage, and he has a clown’s face and a comic’s look of relaxation on screen, although he doesn’t only play comedy.
He had an international success with his film Mid-August Lunch (2008), in which he stars as an idle man who lives with his elderly mother, then ends up spending August caring for her and all her friends in order to pay off his debts.
In some ways, Salt of Life is an underpopulated retread of Mid- August Lunch. Once again, Di Gregorio plays a character named Gianni, a passive, genial man in Rome who is dominated by his mother. In this film, as well as in Mid-August, this central character is played by Valeria De Franciscis.
This actress, who is actually 95 years old (and was never a professional actress before), is utterly believable as a woman who is comfortable in her position at the center of her son’s life. She is both heedlessly demanding and manipulative but frightened of her own vulnerability and dependency.
The movie is most vivid when she and her card-playing friends are on screen, ordering around Gianni and eating lavish lunches.
The story, such as it is, is about how Gianni chafes at his subservience to her and tries, with very limited success, to regain control of his own life. He is an early retiree who has used up his pension buying things for her and keeping his own life in order. He doesn’t have much left to help his daughter, a young student with few prospects and a boyfriend who is similarly hopeless about the future. His wife is barely a presence in this film at all, and he spends much of his time trying to find a way to cheat on her. But he’s no Berlusconi – he is attracted to beautiful but very independent women, and his hangdog look wins smiles from them but little else. His unexpressed terror at growing old gives the film its strongest moments.
There is a kind and gentle but distinctly political subtext here, which grows more relevant every day as European economic woes top the international headlines.
Gianni stopped work early, but now he doesn’t have much to do with his free time but wait on his mother. His mother enjoyed a lifestyle that she has bankrupted herself and her son to maintain, but Gianni’s daughter doesn’t even dream about living like this. All she hopes is that she will pass her exams and get a job. Gianni feels increasingly unimportant in his own life.
For all its gentle charm, the movie is undeniably slow, and many viewers will not have patience for it. It’s 90 minutes but feels longer. It’s hard not to get frustrated with Gianni at times, as he sometimes slips into a caricature of a passive, impotent male.
Di Gregorio gives it all a great deal of charm, but the vitality of the women from Mid-August Lunch is needed here to balance his lowkey presence. While some will enjoy the travelogue aspect – this film can be viewed as a peek into a vanishing Rome – others will find the film a frustrating experience.
But Di Gregorio, who directed his first film in his late 50s, is a director to watch.