Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto) caused a quiet stir in 2008 when its writer-director-star Gianni Di Gregorio won the BFI London Film Festival’s Best First Film award at the sprightly age of 59. Funny and understated, it made a modest world cinema star of Di Gregorio, who returns to screens this week with The Salt of Life (2011).
A spiritual sequel of sorts to Mid-August Lunch, The Salt of Life returns to the long-suffering Gianni (the director playing a version of himself) and his doting, imposing mother (Valeria De Franciscis), but this time he is married with a grown-up child, and the emphasis here is on women around half a century younger than the previous film. Our middle-aged hero embarks on midlife crisis, distracted by the potential pleasures of extra-marital affairs (with little success) whilst juggling the varying affections of a wife, daughter and mother. Again, women are the centre of gravity around which our lead revolves.
Gianni is the perfect guide to walk through this slight world of late bloomage. His kind but worn face is the ideal personification of a late middle-ager clinging on to the last vestiges of youth, and his reactions are often priceless. “I had a dream about you last night,” one of his objects of attraction tells him one morning, to his initial delight. “You were my Granddad.” We then cut to Gianni sitting alone on a park bench, looking despondent. (It’s funnier than it sounds.)
As with his previous effort, Di Gregorio has a wonderfully refreshing lightness of touch to his humour. Sometimes, however, the comedy is a little wackier and more predictable than might be expected, with some sequences – a reluctant date with two sexy blonde twins, for example – appearing to have been lifted straight out of the sitcom manual. Unlike Mid-August Lunch, where the action ambled along in a nothing-really-happens sort of way, The Salt of Life sometimes employs unnecessarily contrived setpieces, to its detriment.
Still, The Salt of Life is as visually appealing as the last film, depicting Rome in golden tones and shot in a very naturalistic, handheld, European style. You sense much of the acting is semi-improvised, and despite being plagued with grievances, Gianni lives a fairly idyllic Italian existence, chatting merrily to the local townspeople and rarely without a glass of wine in his hand. Indeed, he almost willingly plays up to the national stereotypes, as Gianni’s entire existence seems driven by food, family and females. It’s as much a portrayal of modern Italy as it is of one man’s climacteric.
For a up-and-coming filmmaker in his early sixties, it’s perhaps churlish to wish that The Salt of Life could have been bolder, more daring through being less obvious. But though it fails to be as subtle or all-round satisfying as his first effort, it nonetheless retains that bracingly unpatronising, unpretentious approach. And much like its lead, it’s unerringly sweet, good-natured and charming.