The Salt of Life
‘Salt’ could use a bit more spice
A quietly insistent parable of male menopause, “The Salt of Life’’ ambles along the line between comedy and melancholy, rarely making a misstep but rarely looking up. The film’s Italian, so the food and the women are beautiful, ripe, overabundant. Yet the hero is a man who’s no longer hungry and can’t understand why.
He’s played by writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio, who even gives the character his own name. The movie’s Gianni is a tall, grave-looking 60-something who lives on a pension with his chic wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) and college-age daughter (Teresa Di Gregorio, the director’s actual daughter). He’s a caring son for his elderly mother (Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni) and an all-around nice guy, but he seems to be vanishing into thin air.
“It’s like I’m transparent,’’ he tells his friend and attorney, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata). “The Salt of Life’’ is about that moment in a man or woman’s life when members of the opposite sex stop seeing them, and while the mood is jauntily sensual, the undertow is fierce. Alfonso urges his friend to get on with it and have an affair - it’s Italy, so there are no ethical implications - and he pushes Gianni toward any number of gorgeous young women.
But his mother’s hot caregiver (Kristina Cepraga) dreams that Gianni’s her grandfather, and an old girlfriend (Valeria Cavalli) falls asleep on him. The most tempting fruit is the party girl downstairs (Aylin Prandi), with whom Gianni enjoys a daily flirtation that always seems on the verge of slipping into deeper waters.
It sounds like the stuff of mamma-Roma sex comedy, but Di Gregorio doesn’t go there. A long-established screenwriter (“Gomorrah’’), he moved into directing with 2008’s “Mid-August Lunch,’’ which shares the new film’s pungent, plotless immersion in the daily life of a mensch. Cinematographer Gogo Bianchi captures mid-summer Rome at its most luscious, but that only underscores Gianni’s small-scale tragedy. He’s terrified he’s becoming one of those old men who sits out on the sidewalk all day, but even they’re fooling around with the local shopkeepers.
There are moments of farce: Alfonso forces Gianni to take a Viagra and ships him off to a bordello, forgetting about Rome’s infamous traffic jams. Mostly, though, “The Salt of Life’’ moves at the speed of life. That it avoids such things as conclusions, resolutions, and tidy morals will frustrate some viewers and delight others, but it’s also true that the film nearly gets swamped by its own mildness.
Di Gregorio has some of the stooped charm of French comic Jacques Tati, but he’s a Tati in late-life crisis. Does Gianni even want his mojo back? At its darkest, “The Salt of Life’’ implies that age not only robs us of desire but of the desire for desire, and that not being seen is a liberating curse.
All that keeps the film from becoming genuinely powerful is its discretion - the sympathetic distance the director keeps from his alter ego. “I’d love to know what’s going on in your head,’’ someone tells Gianni late in the going. We would, too, and when we finally do, it’s a vision both touching and banal. Is the ambiguity intentional? In the end, Di Gregorio’s touch is too light to tell.