Gianni is invisible. Not in the literal sense — though it would be pretty cool to watch a movie about a mischievous and invisible Italian man. No, “The Salt of Life” takes a more realistic approach. Gianni is a guy so lost in the utter boredom of existence that he no longer remembers what it’s like to hold someone’s attention. He feels like a drifter, a sad little footnote posted on the margin of everybody else’s life.
The Salt of Life
At the Michigan
It can be a sad, boring story to squeeze into 90 minutes, but thankfully director Gianni Di Gregorio (“Mid-August Lunch”), who also plays the lead, sees the lighter side of things. Rather than those depressing faux-introspective shots of Gianni looking in a mirror while thinking about the real meaning of life, we get a slightly more interesting plotline about the man’s never-ending search for true love. In other words, it’s an hour-and-a-half of Gianni trying to woo pretty, young Italian women.
At first, he’s tentative, vicariously observing as his older companions take their mistresses to elaborate luncheons and “after-parties.” But for some reason, despite that he has been retired for 10 years and doesn’t even sleep in the same bed as his wife anymore, Gianni can’t muster the courage to make a move. There’s always an inkling of self-doubt surrounding everything Gianni attempts: What if they make me out to be some sort of buffoon? What if my wife finds out? What if I end up being that deserted loser no one cares about?
Finally, when it dawns on Gianni that he is the loneliest guy he’ll ever know, his lawyer and oldest friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata, “Mid-August Lunch”) arranges a double date with identical twins. As expected, things don’t go as planned. And it only gets worse when Gianni tries to hit on his senile mother’s hot young caretaker. In every way, the women in Gianni’s life — no matter how pretty or ugly — are like a giant wall blocking his way to happiness. No matter how many times our middle-aged Italian friend runs at the wall, he ends up walking away with a bloody nose.
But somehow, in spite of the unhappy, dejected context behind every plot development, “The Salt of Life” turns out to be a surprisingly funny movie. There’s no doubt that anyone who watches this film will be feeling sorry about Gianni’s sad life just minutes into the first scene. Di Gregorio uses this pity to inspire a sense of vulnerability that makes us laugh uneasily at Gianni’s expense. It’s never the kind of smack-you-across-the-face comedy you’d expect walking into a movie like “Superbad” or “The Hangover.” Rather, Di Gregorio seems content with those thoughtful, pensive laughs like the kind you’d find watching a Woody Allen movie.
To a certain degree, the movie succeeds in delivering a poignant and cleverly constructed portrait of middle age. The idea that nostalgia can be and usually is a mirror image of expectation is clearly visible in Di Gregorio’s jokes about “finding the one true love.” But the writers don’t try to back it up with all of those long, winding monologues about how a man’s identity gradually dissolves with age. By doing so, Gianni becomes more relatable. And “The Salt of Life” is a better movie for realizing it.
By the time the end credits roll, you’re not really sure whether or not you want Gianni to ever find true love. But one thing is dead clear: Everyone in the audience will hope that the poor guy eventually gets laid.