'The Salt of Life'

"Mid-August Lunch" director Gianni Di Gregorio delivers another intimate comedy marked by spontaneity and ease.

The budget’s slightly bigger and the locations have expanded, but Gianni Di Gregorio’s follow-up to surprise hit “Mid-August Lunch” is another intimate comedy that blows fresh air around a topic long made banal by less sincere helmers. In “The Salt of Life,” Di Gregorio plays a different Gianni (but still a mama’s boy), discovering age hasn’t weakened his eye for beautiful women. Though lacking some of the earlier film’s originality, the pic boasts the same feel for real people, making it stand out in a field of overblown Italo comedies. “Salt” will add a pleasant zing to Stateside arthouse cinemas.

Local B.O. should be strong, with 150 prints rolling out the same day as the Berlin premiere. Biz abroad is also likely to jump thanks to the pic’s merits and the dearth of similar fare; Fandango Portobello presold “Salt” to France, the Benelux countries and Switzerland, with more territories undoubtedly about to sign.

Though Di Gregorio reteams with nonagenarian Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni as his mom, the characters aren’t continuations of those in “Mid-August Lunch.” Gianni is a retiree with a wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) and daughter (Teresa Di Gregorio, the helmer’s daughter) in a comfortable apartment in Rome, and a mother living in her own luxurious home. With no fixed employment, Gianni’s days should be his own, but his wife is always sending him on errands and his mother calls whenever she needs something (often), despite having a live-in caretaker, Cristina (Kristina Cepraga).

Gianni bemoans his circumstances, tired of everyone (but his wife) telling him he’s a perfect gentleman and almost resigned to merely coasting through life from now on. Lawyer friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) tries to hook them both up with younger women, sparking Gianni’s recollection that a beautiful pair of eyes — and other attributes — can still make his heart skip a beat. But he also knows that at his age, he’s largely invisible to the young except as a helpful neighbor, more uncle material than lover.

The pic’s Italian trailer gives the impression of yet another movie about an old guy getting the babes (think Rodney Dangerfield), but thankfully that’s not what Di Gregorio is going for. There’s a wistfulness here, a gentle self-mockery that realizes that dreams can be delightful but will remain only a fantasy. But just because the bags under the eyes get bigger doesn’t mean the glances themselves are any less flirtatious, or less joyful.

As with “Mid-August Lunch,” Di Gregorio, a longtime scripter and assistant director, doesn’t go for big guffaws, and hardly anything feels pushed. Instead, there’s a naturalness about human interactions and a believability in situations and dialogue. Some may quibble that everyone here is rather well-to-do (though Gianni nevertheless worries about money), and his relationship with his largely absent wife needs development, but the likability factor remains high. Unquestionably the target audience remains an older one, though the pic’s refreshing artlessness could charm a broader crowd.

Di Gregorio’s dialogue and performers are once again marked by a spontaneity and ease; who else working today treats so-called “middle age” with such jocular honesty? Lensing, too, matches the sense of informality: It’s certainly more bigscreen than his previous pic, yet the writer-director-star rarely loses a sense of familial intimacy, a sunniness without the glare.

The Salt of Life

Italy

Production

A 01 Distribution release of a BiBi Film, Isaria Prods. production, in collaboration with Rai Cinema. (International sales: Fandango Portobello, London.) Produced by Angelo Barbagallo. Executive producer, Gaetano Daniele. Directed by Gianni Di Gregorio. Screenplay, Di Gregorio, Valerio Attanasio.

Crew

Camera (color), Gogo Bianchi; editor, Marco Spoletini; music, Ratchev & Carratello; production designer, Susanna Cascella; costume designer, Silvia Polidori; sound (Dolby Digital), Gianluca Costamagna; assistant director, Guido Colla; casting, Fabiola Banzi, Francesca Borromeo. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 11, 2011. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni; Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Alyn Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa Di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato.

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