The original title of “The Salt of Life” translates from the Italian as “Gianni and the Women.” It’s a better fit than the English-language name. And it could just as easily have been the title of writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio’s previous movie, the sweet 2008 sleeper “Mid-August Lunch.” In both, Di Gregorio plays a character named Gianni. Though they share the same hangdog fecklessness, they’re not quite the same Gianni. Even if, in both movies, the Giannis’ mother(s?) are played by nonagenarian Valeria Di Franciscis.
In “Lunch,” the bachelor Gianni lived in a Rome apartment with his mother and wound up hosting three other old ladies for a sleepover and lavish repast. The ladies in “Salt” are generally younger. In the time-honored Italian (male heterosexual) tradition, they’re also objects of lust or at least longing for Gianni as he enters his early 60s.
Nudged into early retirement, Gianni shares an apartment with his wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini), who has her own bedroom and treats her husband with the efficient affection of a longtime business associate. Their daughter Teresa (Teresa Di Gregorio, real-life daughter of you-guessed-who) also shares the flat, along with her slacker boyfriend Michelangelo (Michelangelo Ciminale), who isn’t an official tenant but might as well be.
Gianni’s hours are often eaten up by his mother, who calls from her cushy home, pretending to be ill. Really, she just wants her son to serve her and her neighbor ladies lunch and champagne while they play poker. After all, Mama’s live-in nurse and maid Kristina (Kristina Cepraga) has the day off. Kristina happens to be a blond bombshell, a fact not lost on Gianni’s lawyer pal Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), who wonders why Gianni hasn’t tried to hook up with this woman less than half his age.
Alfonso provokes Gianni into looking around for some young thing to have an affair with. After all, the tracksuit-wearing codger down the street is having a fling with the gal at the convenience store. And so, almost as if caving in to peer pressure rather than scratching a personal itch, Gianni surveys the landscape of local lovelies. They include Aylin (Aylin Prandi), the flirt who lives downstairs, whose St. Bernard Gianni walks as an excuse to earn one of her sloppy kisses; Gabriella (Gabriella Sborgi), a self-involved childhood friend; a pair of toothy twins (Laura and Silvia Squizzato); and Valeria (Valeria Cavalli), a long-ago flame.
As Gianni encounters these women, his quest feels half-hearted, more theoretical than driven. The movie starts to feel like a picaresque without much point. Gianni’s wife is depicted as an amiable companion, and if she doesn’t have a current erotic rapport with her husband, she’s hardly a termagant. Gianni’s search for greener lawns seem a little myopic.
At barely 90 minutes, “Salt of Life” is only slightly longer than Di Gregorio’s brief gem, “Mid-August Lunch.” But it feels a bit padded, a little aimless. Yes, wandering the Roman streets in the company of the rueful Gianni (and a couple of dogs) is better than being force-marched through an overly familiar plot. But it’s hard to get a peg on Gianni. The fact that, in his 60s, he can’t bed babes left and right may be sad. But he doesn’t seem like somebody who ever did that when he was younger and had the chance. Maybe that’s at the heart of “Salt of Life”: how sad it is to regret no longer having what you never had to begin with.
“The Salt of Life.” With Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis, Alfonso Santagata. Directed by Di Gregorio. In Italian with subtitles. Unrated. 90 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.