Active Ingredients: Cast of recurring characters; Concerns about aging
Side Effects: Lack of humor; Handheld camerawork
The Salt of Life is a wispy Italian idyll, a springtime jaunt through Rome paced like an al fresco lunch. It’s also a gentle comedy about aging and reclaiming flagging self-confidence, and if it meanders a bit to reach its destination, like a Roman retiree, I suppose it can be forgiven. The film is the followup to last year’s critically-acclaimed Mid-August Lunch by Gianni Di Gregorio, a writer-director-actor who reminds me of Woody Allen. Like Woody, Gianni’s on-screen persona finds that life simply happens to him. Gianni is henpecked by his wife and daughter, used by his beautiful young neighbor and passively bullied by his mother. He may not have quite so many witty responses to the world going on around him as Woody, but he’s equally incapable of altering his place in it—until, spurred on by a friend, he sets about to find the motivation and (sex) drive that middle age has sapped him of.
The motivations Di Gregorio provides for his character, however, are strangely vague. As he wanders from one encounter with the women in his life to the next (the original Italian title of the film translates to “Gianni and the Women”), we’re never really clear what it is he’s after. Does he simply want to get laid, or discover a new passion? Either way, there’s curiously little mention of his wife, who would presumably play a key role in a man’s middle-aged funk, one way or another. Gianni buys himself new clothes and begins going out to clubs, but all his attempts to reassert his manhood backfire. As he puts it, he doesn’t want to end up “just another old guy in the streets” whom women ignore as they strut by.
I appreciate the sentiment behind Gianni’s dilemma. His obliging nature makes him the nice man and loving father that he is, but it also led him here, afraid to ignore his mother’s phone calls. It’s an interesting, primarily masculine, take on a mid-life crisis, though I’m not sure it needed to be couched in an anachronistic sex comedy like The 40 Year Old Virgin. Routinely, Gianni’s encounters lack the punch and narrative tension they need, and far too often scenes fall flat when they should be driving the film forward. And while I did mention Woody Allen earlier, Di Gregorio certainly doesn’t have Allen’s comedic voice. The film is light and easygoing, but it’s not particularly funny. The Salt of Life is perceptive to the indignities of again, but, like poor Gianni, too passive and unfocused to really succeed.