A version of this review appeared in The Age, December 22, 2011.
Orson Welles' final masterpiece, F For Fake (1973), contains a dizzying sequence devoted to what Welles calls “the fine outdoor sport of girl-watching”. Were that sport part of the Olympics, the hero of Gianni Di Gregorio's new film would be guaranteed a place on the Italian team.
Now in his early sixties, Di Gregorio didn't have his career breakthrough until 2008, when he wrote, directed and starred in Mid-August Lunch, a gentle comedy about an ageing bachelor still under the thumb of his ninetysomething mother (Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni).
The Salt of Life – the superior Italian title translates as “Gianni and the Women” – brings back both the imperious mother and the dutiful son. This time, though, Gianni is a family man, with a teenage daughter (Teresa Di Gregorio) and a pleasant but distant wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini). Forced into early retirement, Gianni spends his days running errands, fretting about the potential loss of his inheritance, and ogling much younger women on the street.
The premise could have been handled crassly, but Di Gregorio is the rare filmmaker with a genuinely light touch. As an actor, he has the sleekness of an ideal head waiter, despite his stiff neck and the bags under his eyes. He directs with a similar self-effacing skill: whenever Gianni goes for a stroll, the character's lecherous thought processes are revealed through seemingly offhand point-of-view shots that double as documentary glimpses of summer in Rome.
The Salt Of Life is unabashedly filled with touristic pleasures, and Di Gregorio is acute about ways that frustrated sexual longing can be diverted into other kinds of consumption: white wine at lunch, a blissful early-morning cigarette.
Beneath the sunny surface, this is also a story about a man dealing with the awareness of mortality (his mother's and his own). Only gradually does it become clear that Gianni's impulsive behaviour, and heavy drinking, may be symptoms of a nervous breakdown in slow motion. But the film retains a spirit of wry, clear-eyed indulgence: in their appreciation of female beauty, Di Gregorio and his alter ego are very much at one.