The Salt of Life or Gianni and Women (2011)

Gianni e le donne. Literally Gianni and (the) Women.

Gianni is on our screens again. Still drinking, but less than he did in Mid August Lunch, still a good cook, still at the beck and call of his mother. But this is a different Gianni. He is in his 60s, retired for the last ten years, and lives in a world dominated by women of different ages.  At the entrance to his apartment building in Rome, three old men sit all day, gossiping, or talking football?  He only exchanges greetings with them on his way to and from the shops. Occasionally he gazes out of his window and sees old men passing by and specially one who is bent double and walks with the help of a cane.

Whereas I thought that the success of Mid August Lunch was  due to its feel-good effect about inoffensive old ladies, I would like to propose that Gianni e le donne  challenges the stereotype of  the mature seductive older man and addresses issues of ageing and gender in an ambiguous and non-judgemental manner.

At the time of writing, the film has not been issued in the USA so I have only the British and French reviews to assess its impact on the critics. They mostly praise the film, remarking on its gentle touch in dealing with the ageing process. It is ‘a charming comedy’ , ‘charming and melancholy’, ‘wistful’. I think it has more bite than these general descriptions.

I will first consider the women in Gianni’s life. His mother, in her 90s, as in MidAugust Lunch is physically grotesque with a huge blonde wig and excessive make up. Her craggy old face gives her presence.  But she is not the infantalised tyrannical mother of Mid August Lunch. The film starts at the lawyer’s office,  where her son is trying to con her into selling her house for a regular allowance. She is very capable of defending her interests against his deception. She lives above her means but shows some responsibility when later on she decides on her own accord to sell.  She seems to spend her time contented in her villa. She is cared for by a young woman from Eastern Europe.  She entertains her friends. They plays cards, and eat and drink copiously. She abuses the docility of her son by phoning him at any time of day and night for trivial needs, and refuses to eat the food that her daughter-in-law has prepared specially for her.

There are three women of Gianni’s age in the film.  His wife only appears briefly. Her face does show signs of age and she rushes around presumably to go to work.  She instructs Gianni to do the chores and also advises him not to drink so much. She does not share a bed or even a bedroom with her husband but they are on good terms. He is seen giving her breakfast in bed.

Gianni’s childhood friend. She is a professional singer, busy rehearsing when he comes round to see her and has little time for him.  She is off to Paris the next day. Finally, his first flame who invites him to her house but expects him to cook the supper. It is the only time Gianni refuses to comply with his mother’s injunction to come immediately to her. Unfortunately by the time he has finished talking on the phone, the woman has fallen asleep on the sofa.

There are also three younger women  who are part of Gianni’s everyday life. His daughter is in an unsatisfactory  relationship with a young man who she intends to leave but only after her exams. In the meantime he lives with the family and seems to have nothing to do.  There is the neighbour, a vivacious young woman who charms him and flirts with him.  And there is his mother’s carer who when he makes tipsy advances to her retreats nervously.

Apart from the main characters, throughout the film we see women of different ages.  The younger women  in their summer dresses with revealing cleavages include the newsagent and the stall holder. The middle age ones are always rushing and busy and the old ones including the visiting mother of the carer,  seemingly contented.

What about the men? As mentioned before there are numerous shots of three old men sitting in the street outside Gianni’s building. In the flat his daughter’s boyfriend hangs about with nothing to do.   Gianni’s lawyer friend  sole function in the film is to encourage and push Gianni to have sexual adventures.

What to make of Gianni?  Ten years after being made redundant, he has settled into being the practical support of his family, his mother, his wife, and his daughter. He also helps the neighbour by taking her dog for a walk and doing her shopping. He has no sexual relationship. The film revolves around sexuality in the ageing man. I do not feel competent to consider Gianni’s ageing and sexuality or to comment on the old man representation in films. However there are some features and scenes of the film that give food for thoughts and raise general  questions.

First of all there is the issue of  redundancy. Gianni (in his sixties now) has been retired since the age of 50. “The Institute of Public Policy Research said nearly 25% of people who had been out of work for more than two years are over the age of 50” (Age UK). Is the boyfriend unemployed or just lazy?   In the film the men are idle and the women are all employed. Can we take this as a social comment? Gianni is kept busy by household chores. Should we agree with the critic who says that he leads a ‘feminised existence’? Should we agree with another critic who declares: “A particularly Italian preoccupation is served up with wry humour for scrutiny- the great reversal over the last couple of generations in the power distribution between men and women- painful, to say the least, for a macho culture” ? Is Gianni’s docile character abused by the women? Or is he just taken for granted?  Is this a reversal of roles film? It is certain that the invisibility that Gianni refers to in the bar scene is a very common experience of older women.  The internalized ageism of older people who find difficulty in accepting their own ageing is also commonly discussed in older women groups. This is shown in the film when time and again Gianni gazes at old men as “others”. The shock of being likened to one’s grandfather by both the neighbour and the carer is also recognisable by women  albeit that for women one is more likely to be likened to one’s mother.

But the main theme of the film is Gianni’s sexuality. On this subject the reviewers remain strangely reserved except that some of them mention that in Italy the film was interpreted as a political message attacking  Berlusconi’s sexual scandals. Why do Gianni and his wife have no sexual relationship? Reduced libido due to age and familiarity in the couple? The question remains open but there is no doubt that the main sexual drive that underlines the narrative originates from Gianni’s friend. He puts constant pressure on Gianni to find himself a woman and even organises for him some encounters. But we are led to think that Gianni would prefer a more gentle romantic involvement with women. Drunk he tries and fails to get nearer to his mother’s carer.  He hopes that both his childhood friend and first flame would respond to his timid advances but to no avail. Are we to see these approaches as failures? Is he a loser as one critic says?

The most hilarious scene, and to my mind the most revealing,  is the one when Gianni’s friend forces him to swallow a Viagra pill washed down with water from a watering can.  Is the director saying that our culture is force feeding us sex?   “Have sex until you drop” as Michelle Hanson says in her column on positive ageing. Are we to take  Gianni’s fantasy of being pampered by young sexy women as the result of an acid trip or as the actual thoughts of Gianni throughout the film?

Gianni is never pathetic, his gaze on women is never lascivious, he is not self-pitying.

It is the non-judgemental approach that is remarkable in this film. It leaves space for the viewers to make up their own mind.

Note: it would be interesting to analyse how Gianni’s non predatory attitude to women is achieved in the film. But the DVD is not available yet.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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