Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Salt of Life

With "Mid-August Lunch" and now "The Salt of Life," writer-turned-director Gianni de Gregorio has carved out a niche as a sort of Italian Henry Jaglom. Short on cinematic technique, talky but breezy, his movies seem predestined to land right at 2 1/2 stars no matter what. They produce mostly wry smiles and chuckles, but manage to mine a few big laughs simply from underplaying and not forcing their human comedy.

De Gregorio stars as a put-upon Roman in his 60s who's burning through his pension money paying for his wife's shopping, his nonagenarian mother's poker habit, and whatever his neighbor asks him to buy her when he comes by to walk her Saint Bernard. He's always at mom's beck and call; she calls him nonstop to report medical emergencies, often as a pretense to have him come adjust her television set ("98.9 degrees is not a fever").

On his walks about town, he sees beautiful women - some younger, some much younger - and has begun to feel invisible around them ("transparent," he calls it). When did they stop seeing him as a man and start looking upon him as an unthreatening grandfather type, or an overgrown errand boy? De Gregorio has wonderfully expressive eyes (his bags have bags), and needs few words to convey a surprisingly poignant sense of a man who still feels youthful stirrings but has become ineffectual and detumescent. (That he happens to be reasonably happily married is Europeanly irrelevant.)

Valeria de Franciscis reprises her "Mid-August Lunch" role as de Gregorio's mother (all the characters are named for the actors playing them), and again steals her scenes. You want to talk about a face with character? And just listen to her explain to Gianni's wife that, really, no offense is intended - she just can't have any of her eggplant parmigiana because it's too rich for her.

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