The dirty old man has been with us since at least Roman times.
British comic Benny Hill made a career out of eye-rolling lechers. Sitcom television is thick with thickening husbands who delude themselves with the dream that they still have a good game, when it's obvious they no longer have the will or the skill.
You could view Gianni Di Gregorio’s “The Salt of Life” as a sort of Italian “The Seven Year Itch.” But beneath the chuckles, something serious is simmering.
Or maybe not. This is a very low-keyed, unassertive affair. You can view it as a pleasant toss-off, as an amusing trifle. Or you can dig a bit deeper and come away with a minor tragedy.
Writer/director Gregorio plays 60-year-old Gianni, involuntarily retired and now a househusband, holding down the fort while his wife goes to work and his daughter goes to college.
He’s a nondescript fellow whose dominant features are the prominent bags under his eyes. He looks like a cartoon Bassett hound.
Gianni and his wife sleep in separate bedrooms. They get along fine, but apparently passion is no longer on their must-do list.
His mother (played by 96-year-old Valeria De Francisco) is a wealthy widow rapidly burning up the family fortune with lavish poker games for her gal pals. She thinks nothing of calling Gianni to drive across town simply to adjust a plug on the back of her television. Being a well-mannered pushover, he always comes.
Indeed, Gianni feels neutered. Not that he says anything about it. But look at his hangdog expression and tell me if this isn't a guy in the midst of a late-life crisis.
When his lawyer friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) urges him to take a mistress — every old man’s doing it, he says — Gianni steps back to consider his options.
Suddenly he's aware that all around him are beautiful, voluptuous women. His mother’s housekeeper is a knockout. So’s the twentysomething girl downstairs who relies on Gianni to walk her Saint Bernard and rewards him with grand-daughterly hugs and kisses.
The park is filled with feminine beauty. The woman who runs the corner tobacco shop is stunning — and having an affair with an old geezer in a track suit.
“The Salt of Life” is about a man who realizes he’s become invisible. Women simply don’t see him, unless there a task that needs an uncomplaining worker.
So who can blame Gianni for getting into the game one last time?
A Hollywood film on this subject would be a broad and raucous and rude. “The Salt of Life” is just the opposite. It’s quiet, almost mournful, but it has some very funny moments.
The humor, though, is generated almost entirely by the situations. Gianni doesn’t say much, and what he says isn’t particularly funny. This would actually work as a silent comedy.
This is only De Gregorio’s second film, the first being 2008’s delightful “Mid-August Lunch,” in which he played a man forced to spend a long holiday in an apartment with his aged mother and her lady friends. It could be argued that he’s too much the minimalist, that he needs to inject a bit more energy into the proceedings.
I’m not so sure. I believe his ruefully funny style holds the perfect approach to Gianni’s dilemma, providing it with the gravity it deserves (when a man finally realizes he’ll never again have sex, it’s a major moment) while never allowing it to turn maudlin or angry.
So in the end we have a genuine rarity: a film that treats dirty old men with respect.