The protagonist in writer/director and star Gianni Di Gregorio’s poignant new Italian drama, The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne), may well be in his autumn years and settling down to retirement, but the message is the same for all who catch this touching tale: embrace life and all its opportunities.

Gianni (played Di Gregorio himself) is a middle-aged family man who has recently retired. His wife and grown-up daughter seem too busy with their own lives, his mother (Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni) has him at her beck and call, and his randy old lawyer friend, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), is either busy chasing skirt – his younger female clients’ – or setting him up with dates. Gianni struggles not to become old before his time and remain relevant and attractive to those around him, particularly the opposite sex.

This light- and big-hearted tale is almost semi-autobiographical, with Di Gregorio relating to his character’s woes at age 62 himself then writing them down as a witty situational drama. On face value this film appears to target a certain age group (60+), but it speaks to all who fear growing old and losing their looks. It may also affect anyone feeling on the fringes of society, such as the unemployed, or anyone looking for purpose and at a crossroads. The very beginning tricks us into thinking one way about Gianni then surprises us when we get to know him and his growing concerns.

Di Gregorio has all the presence and hounded looks as his troubled namesake character, Gianni, someone who cannot avoid the inevitable but still is in limbo, attracting the healthy respect of women of all ages with his polite and accommodating ways, but not how he sees (or wants to be seen) himself just yet. Di Gregorio’s tender portrayal evokes warming sympathy touched with a twinge of pity at his dilemma. It may seem like a case of ‘the dirty old man’ after the younger woman, but as his company is still very much appealing with women in the story, we are happy to believe his quest is to find happiness and companionship, rather than being wholly sexual in nature, making him even more engaging to watch and empathise with. After all, we hope for a happy ending.

However, the dreamlike ‘mid-life crisis’ finale works contrary to the respect we have built up for Gianni, and feels rather misplaced, like Di Gregorio has run out of a suitable conclusion and doesn’t have any answers from his experience. One part of the plot is never fully explained either: that of his relationship with his wife. Their separate existence needed further development as to why she is not there for him. In fact, a lot of the scenes at Gianni’s home seem disjointed and unclear, whether intentional to heighten the sense of not belonging – as with the random party thrown by his daughter.

The true power of Di Gregorio’s film is in the reactions, rather than the actions of the lead, and these are absorbed as we enjoy going along on Gianni’s adventure. It may seem slightly indulgent from the writer/director, but acts as a self-assured wake-up call to everyone to take notice of others less involved in our busy lives but equally important.

[Rating: 3.5/5]