The Salt of Life Review
Following up his delightful 2008 feature Mid-August Lunch, Gianni Di Gregorio has again found the happiest of mediums with his second turn as actor, writer and director in The Salt of Life. There's little progression, and there need not be given his keen ability to portray the pleasures and anxieties of everyday living, but the newest film at least feels like a minor expansion of ideas and themes. It carries with it a similarly relaxed mood which is then parlayed into something a bit deeper and almost meditative. Though there's a clear and specific feel to Di Gregorio's setting of both Rome and Italy, the things explored in The Salt of Life are very much universal afflictions. In short, we're dealing with some of the realities of aging. The character played by Di Gregorio finds himself having to come to terms with no longer feeling attractive to members of the opposite sex. In the whole scheme of things it's relatively minor but for those with more fragile egos it verges on being a crisis.
As with Mid-August Lunch, Di Gregorio plays a character named Gianni, and there are allusions in the film and elsewhere that some aspects are at least semi-autobiographical. The delightful nonagenarian Valeria De Francisis Bendoni also returns to again play Gianni's mother. She's a spitfire, often calling Gianni over to her home for little reason and apparently spending money, which Gianni recognizes would eventually be his if it were to remain available, very freely and on frivolous things. At one point he gets a call and we hear him tell his mother that 98.9 degrees (Fahrenheit) is not really a fever. Another scene, earlier in the film, finds Gianni called over, using the pretense of her not feeling well, to essentially cater a card game among his mother and her friends. When he finds very expensive bottles of champagne languishing in the refrigerator, he of course takes it upon himself to share in the festivities.
Gianni comes across as somewhat ambiguous and neurotic, with questionable intentions lurking in the background, but nonetheless ultimately sympathetic. He loves his mother and he dutifully takes care of her. He wants the best for his daughter, played by Di Gregorio's own offspring, and even sort of befriends her boyfriend, with whom she's repeatedly expressed interest in breaking up. The relationship Gianni has with his wife seems a bit odd, with them sleeping in different rooms and much of the film built around his interest in finding a new, presumably younger lover. Regardless, the realitites of the aging process and corresponding touches on virility are what allow The Salt of Life to resonate beyond its easygoing and enjoyable pace.
The fact that the film is humorous in a delightful, quiet way also helps. From images like Gianni trying to swig a bottle of champagne at his mother's to the sight of him walking both his small dog and the much larger St. Bernard of his neighbor's, there are quite a few moments of visual humor here. The St. Bernard, in particular, quickly emerges as a favorite. Not only is he featured prominently on the cover and the disc of this release, but his onscreen presence inspires a warmth and comfort similar to what we get from viewing the film. There's a feeling of being at peace with one's self when watching the dog, and we hope to see Gianni attain something similar in his journey through life's humble process of growing older. Throughout the film Gianni seems on a quest of personal contentment, but it's easy enough to equate the calm attitude of a dog like the St. Bernard's as being preferable to fretting over what cannot be controlled. It's surely no accident that the film's pivotal final section pairs the two as they take an extended stroll around the streets of Rome.
The Salt of Life almost begs for food-related metaphors and comparisons, but its original Italian title of Gianni e le Donne, which lets the many women featured in the film share the focus, is probably a more apt way to approach it. The protagonist is inundated by both his thoughts about and the presence of women. From his wife and daughter at home to the many females he encounters during the course of the picture, Gianni consistently finds himself thinking, even obsessing over the fairer sex. It's through this window where The Salt of Life really hits its stride. Gianni serves as an older, put-upon yet still interested figure for women to fawn over and ignore as they please. His frustrations translate rather persuasively for the viewer. When he's rejected by a much younger woman, just as when an old flame falls asleep after some catching up but before anything else occurs, it's easy to recognize the melancholy inherent to Gianni's predicament. In the struggle to age gracefully, with dignity fully in tact, Gianni Di Gregorio provides a warm and often funny approach.
In the UK, Artificial Eye previously released The Salt of Life on DVD. Region 1 gets its own version with this edition from Zeitgeist Films. The dual-layered disc is packaged in a transparent keepcase which also houses a folded insert. Cover art is consistent with Zeitgeist's previous edition of Gianni Di Gregorio's Mid-August Lunch (which I reviewed at the time of its release).
The film is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. It looks sufficiently impressive. Natural lighting was often employed, creating a very warm feel to the picture. The resulting image here, even in standard definition, shows colors as true and exhibits strongly rendered detail. While the transfer is non-progressive, the disc nonetheless appears to faithfully represent the intended aesthetic of the film.
The Italian Dolby Digital audio distributes the sound rather well via a two-channel stereo track. Dialogue, effects, and, especially, music all come through cleanly and without issue. Subtitles are provided in English. They are white in color.
Bonus features are satisfying without verging on tedious. An interview (11:59), conducted by Artificial Eye and also found on that label's release, with Gianni Di Gregorio covers some basic topics about the film while still being engaging to the viewer. There is also a rather informal behind-the-scenes featurette (18:18), with short interviews and snippets of footage from the cast and crew. Finishing off the on-disc supplements is the film's U.S. theatrical trailer (1:37). The aforementioned insert booklet, tri-folded to comprise six pages, features interviews with both Di Gregorio and actress Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni, plus has a nice black and white picture of the two embracing.