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Estomago

Dir. Marcos Jorge. Brazil-Italy. 2007. 111 min.

A melange of food, sex and power not seen since Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, Marcos Jorge's feature film debut is a sleeper mystery. Fashioned less as a 'whodunnit'' than a 'what-he-done'', like a delicious meal in a foreign clime, it traverses the palate to deliver an unexpected but apt end-note. Perhaps not every patron will leave Estomago satisfied but it is not possible to watch this film without growing hungry.

Screening in competition at the Rio Film Festival, it won four awards: best director, the audience prize, a jury prize and a well-deserved lead actor prize for Joao Miguel - the film rests on his slouched shoulders. (He won the same award two years ago for Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures) Supporting actors are excellent and the film's look transcends its modest budget.

Success at home is a certainty but the elements that ensure this may not help it abroad; a revision of the English subtitles is a must. The digital subtitles at the Rio screening missed many local references and puns (or so this reviewer was told).

That said, there is savour enough to justify a specialised release. Foreign buyers would do well to emphasise its magic-realistic undertones and Miguel's stealthy charisma - echoes of the late Massimo Troisi in Il Postino.

This is a sly and subtle film punctuated by bursts of darkly funny vigour, a misanthrope's version of Like Water For Chocolate.

Jorge portions out his composed story lines such that the viewer is unsure which happened first: Raimundo's arrival in town or his arrival in prison.

The story opens late one evening when Raimundo (Miguel) wanders into a cafe and orders some food. Addled or merely dreamy, insane or slightly retarded or (in hindsight), affected by the pastry, he slips into reverie.

Next, he is walking the hall of a prison: 'checking in' with a sense of purpose curiously at odds with his character. He tells himself, 'I'll need a name suitable for my crime.'

Waking in the cafe, realising he has no money, Raimundo offers to clean the dishes. The bar owner does him one better: he locks him into the filthy kitchen with instructions to make it spotless.

Raimundo will be his galley slave, working for room and board. But the owner has unknowingly unleashed a monster and provided him with the key to his ultimate escape. Raimundo is a culinary savant, and his creations are aphrodisiacs or weapons, or both.

It turns out to be a specialised form of aphrodisiac: Iria (Nascimento), a voracious prostitute who frequents the bar is smitten at first bite -- but not so much with him as with his cooking, particularly the deep-fried delicacy coxinha.

As Raimundo builds his repertoire, others are lured. The owner of an Italian restaurant hires him, and Raimundo's powers increase. In one bravura scene, he services the prostitute from behind as the camera tilts down past her ample bosoms to reveal the real source of her pleasure: a steaming bowl of ragu.

Similarly, within the brutal pecking order of the crowded jail cell, Raimundo's way with a saute pan raises him from the ignominy of sleeping on the bare floor to a mat, then the bottom bunk.

The man on the top bunk may be a brute but he also has a vast appetite, and the means to procure for Raimundo the equipment and raw material.

Raimundo's progress to the top bunk parallels the path to his crime, and the ingredients he uses will horrify but ultimately delight. The way to a man's (or a woman's) heart may be through the stomach - but what if the love stops there'

Production credits

Production company: Zencrane Filmes, Indiana Production Company

International sales: Zencrane

Distribution:

Producers: Claudia Da Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito, Marco Cohen

Screenplay: Lusa Silvestre, Marcos Jorge, Claudia Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito

Main cast: Joao Miguel, Fabiula Nascimento, Babu Santana, Carlo Briani, Zeca Cenovicz, Paulo Miklos

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