If you caught the delightful Italian comedy-drama Mid-August Lunch two years ago – and if you didn’t, watch it first – Salt Of Life will already be on your hit list. (I was virtually first in the queue at the Curzon when it opened there on Friday afternoon. If you’re lucky enough to live near a Curzon in London, or a Picturehouse in other towns, or an equivalent arthouse, you really should seek this one out.) Mid-August Lunch and Salt Of Life form a pair. Both are written, directed by and star Gianni Di Gregorio, a man in his early 60s who used to be a late-blooming writer and assistant director and was afforded the luxury of producing, directing and starring in Mid-August Lunch after achieving great success as a co-writer of the amazing Italian gangster movie Gomorrah. Like it successor Salt Of Life, Mid-August Lunch (or Pranzo di ferragosto) was a very low-budget affair, and if it wasn’t actually filmed in Di Gregorio’s own apartment in Rome, it might as well have been. Even though the Gianni he plays onscreen is a fictional construct, you get the feeling that there’s plenty of the real Gianni in there. And certainly, his easy, hangdog charm is the actor’s work. If you’re thinking Woody Allen, you’re in the right ballpark. Although for Di Gregorio to launch this second career as an auteur in the autumn of his life makes him very different indeed.
What’s lovely about both films – and in Salt Of Life, Gianni plays a slightly different Gianni, who’s married with a daughter, but it’s still “Gianni” – is that they concern themselves with ageing. In Mid-August Lunch, Gianni had to entertain not only his nonagenarian mother (Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni), but a gaggle of her friends, on a bank holiday; here, although the thrust of the story is his hapless drive to find a younger lover, his mother continues to dominate his life, now with a live-in nurse, a young woman Gianni naturally fancies, but who regards him as a grandfather figure. Almost as an act of self-torture, Giannia regularly walks the dog of the beautiful young raver who lives in the apartment downstairs. She kisses him sincerely as a thank-you, but as a daughter might kiss her father.
These are not sentimental portrayals of the passage of time and the advancement of years, nor gloomy warnings from the latter stages of life, but gentle, truthfully observed and witty slices of Italian family life. Di Gregorio is a hugely charismatic frontman, all teeth and eye-bags and chivalrous politeness. That he finds himself in his 60s lusting after women in their 20s and 30s somehow does not cross the line into lechery, and this comes from the performance, which is naturalistic – neorealistic? – and warm and self-effacing.
To add to the realism, all the actors retain their own first names, so Alfonso is played by Alfonso, Michelangelo is played by Michelangelo, and so on. (Gianni’s relationship with his daughter’s boyfriend, “Michi”, is understatedly rich.) It’s tempting to read it as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and yet, actually, as a director, much of Di Gregorio’s framing is poetic, profound and entirely cinematic, like the spot in the middle of the day when the sun glints through a row of trees onto the faces of old men and dog-walkers. Gianni passes three old geezers sitting outside a cafe on the same white plastic chairs and bids them hello and goodbye as he walks on by – they’re like a benign version of the Sopranos – and later in the film, they seem to have rustled up a fourth white plastic chair, and Gianni is sitting in it – this is such clever storytelling, and funny, too, without it being a punchline.
To have co-written something as grim, violent and searing as Gomorrah, and then to have produced these two films is a huge leap. We must hope that Gianni – both real and fictional – has plenty of life left in him for future installments. Don’t go and see Salt Of Life expecting gags and sparkling repartee (much of the dialogue consists of “ciao!” and “grazia” and “grazie” and “bene“), but do go expecting to want to move to Italy.