FILM The phenomenon of grown children remaining under (or returning to) mom and dad's roof well after the customary sell-by date has been a regular topic of late in American entertainment and pop sociology.
In Italy, however, that situation is hardly seen as representing some sort of domestic evolutionary failure. In fact it's pretty normal, for reasons that include differing attitudes toward real estate (few would sell a flat that's been in the family for generations), perpetually bleak employment prospects (all the worse sans nepotistic connections), and the umbilical cord seemingly never severed between mothers and sons.
It's not for nothing that the country where the Pope lives is Ground Zero for the Madonna-whore complex. Art and life have so frequently reinforced notion that for Italian men, there are only two relevant kinds of women: the kind they want to fuck, and Mama.
Gianni Di Gregorio is both a triumph over and cautionary illustration of the aging uomo, racking up decades of experience yet still infantilized by that most binding tie. He's a late bloomer who's long worked in theater and film in various capacities, notably as a scenarist for 2008's organized crime drama Gomorrah. That same year he wrote and directed a first feature basically shot in his own Rome apartment. Mid-August Lunch was a surprise global success casting the director himself as a putz, also named Gianni, very like himself (by his own admission), peevishly trying to have some independence while catering to the whims of the ancient but demanding mother (Valeria De Franciscis) he still lives with.
Di Gregorio thus entered the rarefied realm of writer-director-actors who make lightly fictionalized but essentially autobiographical movies about themselves. That kind of enterprise can go either way — insufferable or delightful, indulgent or insightful. Fortunately, Lunch was charming in a sly, self-deprecating way, and The Salt of Life is more of the same minus the usual diminishing returns. The creator's barely-alter ego Gianni is still busy doing nothing much, dissatisfied not by his indolence but by its quality. But his pint-sized, wig-rocking, nearly century-old matriarch has moved to a plush separate address with full-time care. That plus her extravagant generosity to friends and employees is eating up Junior's hopeful inheritance.
Having exhausted his own pension (he was forcibly "retired" at 50, and one senses he didn't exactly knock himself out looking for other work), Gianni views mom's spendthrift twilight with whiny but helpless dismay. Under his own roof, there's more functional disorder: daughter (Teresa Di Gregorio) comes and goes, often less visibly than the on-off boyfriend (Michelangelo Ciminale) who stays here overnight more often than at his own parents' place. It takes some time to figure out that Gianni's wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) lives here too, since their relationship has obviously long ceased to extend co-parenting and tenancy. He is, as they say, at liberty.
Salt's main preoccupation is Gianni's discovery that while he's as available and interested in women as ever, at age 63 he is no longer visible to them. Surrounded by femininity in low-cut dresses — while lower-key, this movie stares open-mouthed at breasts as fervently as Italian sexploitation king Tinto Brass does asses — he is depressed to find they perceive him in asexual terms. (It is particularly wounding when a sexy neighbor says she had a "beautiful dream" about him ... in which he was her grandfather.) A still randy lawyer friend (Alfonso Santagata) trying to get him back into circulation advises, "An old engine that's been abandoned for years and gone rusty needs time to start working again." The screenplay attempts lubricating Gianni's gears via Viagra and, later, an accidental dosing of some party hallucinogenic.
While Fellini confronted desirable, daunting womanhood with a permanent adolescent's masturbatory fantasizing, Di Gregorio's humbler self-knowledge finds comedy in the hangdog haplessness of an old dog who can't learn new tricks and has forgotten the old ones. Nearly as food-focused as his first film, The Salt of Life is like a rich home-cooked meal lent gentle absurdity by the cook's constant worrying aloud whether his digestion can still take the strain. *
THE SALT OF LIFE opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.