Gianni's being good

After a long career as a stage actor and director, Gianni Di Gregorio had an international success with his film ‘Mid-August Lunch’ (2008) and was recently in Israel to present his latest film, ‘The Salt of Life.’

Gianni Di Gregorio (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gianni Di Gregorio
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While Silvio Berlusconi may epitomize the ugly side of machismo, actor/director Gianni Di Gregorio represents a kinder, gentler version of the Italian male.
Visiting Israel to present his latest film, The Salt of Life (which opened throughout the country last week), at the 28th Jerusalem Film Festival, the soft-spoken Di Gregorio talks about making films about older women and becoming a director later in life.
After a long career as a stage actor and director, Di Gregorio, 61, 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 of her friends in order to pay off his debts.
“In my second film, I didn’t want to put in the mother,” says Di Gregorio, hand-rolling a cigarette on the lawn of the Jerusalem Cinematheque. It’s hot in the afternoon sun, but an airconditioned lounge isn’t an option if no smoking is allowed there. Admitting that the two films he’s directed are loosely autobiographical, he continues, “But there she was in the movie, and then she became a huge character.”
His years taking care of his own late mother, who raised him “in the very center of Rome,” have made him sensitive to both the vitality and the vulnerability of the elderly.
“The actress, Valeria De Franciscis, who plays the mother in both of my movies, is 95 years old,” he says. “She wasn’t an actress before. But she treated me like my mother did. She’d say, ‘Tuck your shirt in.’ She is a smart woman. Very quick. All of the women in the movie were.”
There are several scenes in The Salt of Life with the mother hosting lavish card parties for her friends, as her opulent lifestyle eats up her son’s pension. There are also elderly male characters in the story, a group of men who sit around smoking and shooting the breeze outside the hero’s building. The director says he noticed a sharp contrast between the men and the women.
“The women had the time of their lives,” he notes. “They went on TV, they did interviews. They had more vitality. The men were always complaining. They’re afraid to get old. The women are more mature. The men didn’t even come to the premiere. They asked me if I could give them a DVD of the movie.”
Di Gregorio grew up movie-crazy, but his mother, who died just before his success with Mid-August Lunch, hoped he would be a lawyer.
“But I would go to the movies after school. I saw all the genres, Westerns, all the great movies of the day,” he recalls. “I remember Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai touched me incredibly. And Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets made me want to become a director. It was very natural, very spontaneous.”
His familiarity with Mean Streets helped when he co-wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed crime drama Gomorrah.
Although his intimate family dramas are not intended as political statements, he admits that the European economic situation does find its way into The Salt of Life.
“It’s a tricky moment for Italy. You have the problem of people who leave their jobs too early and young people who do not have a job and don’t have hope. I wanted to say something about that,” he explains.
“My movies are like the old-time comedies where we would make fun of ourselves and it could be funny and also political,” the director adds. “It’s important to have small-budget movies, about real people and their lives, not only the huge spectacles with all the effects.”
He is now working on a script in which he won’t play the lead: “I want to sit back and be the director.”
But he wouldn’t mind getting back into acting himself. “I’d like to play the bad guy,” he says, opening his box of rolling papers to make another cigarette. “I’ve never done that. It’s supposed to be fun.”