Of all the factors essential to human survival, only two—sex and food—include pleasure as a vital element. If we were to take the cinema as a measure of the one to which man assigns greater importance, there would be no competition. Sex would win hands down. Just think about it for a moment. Mention food in a film context and everyone comes up with more or less the same tiny group of titles: Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, Tampopo and La Grande Bouffe—and has done for years. There isn’t a single food film festival that hasn’t put at least one, if not all of these titles on the program. The situation remained static for a long time, at least until a couple of years ago. Now, though, either because food is taking a far more important role in people’s general interests, or just because it’s one of those things that happens by chance, the list has grown longer. An American Film (Tortilla Soup), a French one (J’ai faim!!!), a German feature (Mostly Martha) and two Italian pieces (Il quaderno della spesa and Ribelli per caso) are offering themselves up as elite gourmet cinema heirs to Babette’s Feast.
The topic of food is, as we all know, universal and ‘appetizing’, and there isn’t exactly a smorgasbord of competition, as we have seen. So let’s have a look at how these new offerings have panned out, starting with the one from the most powerful of cinematographic industries, that of the USA.
Tortilla Soup is, on paper at least, a very astute ploy. “We want to make a film on food?” went the thinking, “Then why not do a remake of one of the classics of the genre?” Said was as good as done and the fascinating 1994 Taiwanese film Eat Drink Man Woman by Ang ‘The Tiger And The Dragon’ Lee was turned it into a Tex-Mex version to attract the ever growing Latino audience so coveted by Hollywood studios. The film, directed by newcomer Maria Ripoll, tells the tale of retired cook Martin Naranjo (played by the talented Hector Elizondo) whose only loves are food and the education of his almost grown-up daughters. It’s good to see an American movie that presents the irresolvable conflict between those who wolf down frozen hamburgers or buy the sort of made-up salads that are eaten solely to appease the conscience and those like Martin who daily take passionate care in choosing the ingredients to go into their recipes and spend best part of their lives in the kitchen. It is a film where Mexicans like being Mexican, without leaning to the American way of life, and where a focal element is the clash between one of the cook’s daughters, Carmen, and her father because she wants to take up the same line of work. (Why, she says, should she worry about high finance when there are more satisfying things in life?)
So there are good intentions, faces that fit and a smart idea. But is that enough to turn out a good film? Not entirely. Tortilla Soup indulges in too much mawkishness and lacks bite and rhythm. In short, it’s a well presented dish but has too much sugar and spice —that makes it cloy.
Let’s move over to France where, in J’ai Faim!!!, Florence Quentin takes an ironical and sarcastic look at diets and the female obsession with weight. Well-rounded Lily (Catherine Jacob) decides to take just one cup of soup every two hours for the next three days to get back her man, whom she believes to have been lured away by the slenderness of Anais (Alessandra Martines). In the end it all descends into the banal: our heroine gets her shape back, no to mention her jerk of a boyfriend, but she then leaves him for her physiotherapist. We expected that Mme Quentin, here in her first directing role but already screenwriter of La vita è un lungo fiume tranquillo (Life is a Long Quiet River), would have come up with something with more … bite.
Mostly Martha by German director Sandra Nettlebeck fits perfectly into the food film genre. It’s about Martha (Marina Gedek), a highly talented and neurotic chef at a top restaurant, who is as skilled and demanding in the kitchen as she’s hopeless in personal relationships: “I never go out,” she confides to a new neighbor. Martha’s life is turned upside down by two events: her sister dies, leaving Martha in charge of her eight-year old niece, Lina, and her boss hires Mario, an Italian chef who sings (“Volare”) and dances his way through the kitchen, bringing chaos to Martha’s rigorously neat and tidy regime. At first she falls into crisis, trying to calm herself by closing herself in the fridge, but then… I’ll leave you to guess how it ends. The director explained in an interview that what stimulated her was presenting a woman who could only communicate through the art at which she excelled, cooking, but then progressively changed, first due to her niece (the first person to whom she couldn’t relate through food) and then through Marco bursting onto the scene. It’s his cheerfulness and optimism that finally convinces her to change the way she relates to others.
Mostly Martha, although over-seasoned with commonplaces, is a decent film: it is well written and well acted, and though not as richly flavored as some of the dishes it shows, nourishes the brain reasonably well. It’s my personal favorite of the group.
Last but not least, we come to the two Italian offerings. The idea behind Vincenzo Terracciano’s Ribelli per caso (Rebels By Chance) is excellent. A group of patients in a gastroenterology ward, sick and tired of boiled vegetables and colorless pap, decide to barricade themselves into the ward to enjoy a lavish banquet, which they are determined to relish even if it means risking their lives. However, this highly appetizing theme loses something in the serving and although the film (shown out of competition in Bra during the first Slow Food on Film) isn’t bad it gets lost in over-caricature and too much sentimentalism of the ‘Italians=nice people’ type.
Finally, Il Quaderno della spesa (Household Accounts) is a double swansong. It is the last film Tonino Cervi (a great producer and reliable director, son of the great actor Gino and father of the promising Valentina) directed and the final screenplay Rodolfo Sonego, one of Italy’s great comic screenwriters, produced. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, the film revolves around Andrea (Gabriele Lavia), a writer in the midst of a creative crisis, and his chance meeting with Antonia (Emanuela Muni), cultured cook to a countess. When the countess dies, Augusto takes on Antonia, who delights the writer’s group of friends with her culinary skills. But she is not the simple cook that at first she seems … Using the words of the director, who passed away last April, the film is the story of, “a woman whose intelligence and whose natural, unconscious talent, brings her into an environment of privilege, wealth and intellect, which she experiences only through the masculine ego”. The film stes its sights high, but the end-result is wearying, academic and, quite honestly, insipid and short on the palate.
So what’s the verdict? The results are patchy and the films certainly don’t hit the heights of the dishes they present. The supremacy of Babette’s Feas, Tampopo and the rest looks safe and sound to me. But at least something is happening: there is a time for everything and speed, as we all know, is the enemy of pleasure.
Stefano Sardo, a novelist and screenwriter, is the director of the Slow Food on Film festival
Adapted by Maureen Ashley