Dir. Tassos Boulmetis. Greece. 2003. 108 mins.
A natural crowd pleaser and by far the most successful Greek picture of the year (where it has outgunned the likes of Pirates Of The Carribean with 1m admissions since it opened in late October), this ode to traditional Balkan cuisine and its Ottoman roots is the kind of product that begs to be exported to sympathetic markets. The first foray of Village Roadshow's production arm in Europe, it has already bagged all the significant national awards for 2003 and is now the nation's official choice for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 2005.
Given similar treatment abroad, this colourful nostalgic tale of a Greek family deported from Istanbul during the Turkish-Greek conflict of the 1960s, steeped in Oriental aromas and lovingly evoking the charms of an irretrievable past, should find receptive ears among family-oriented audiences.
The very first shot, the naked breast of a woman sprinkling sugar on her nipple before feeding her baby, sets the appropriate mood for everything that will follow. Told as a series of long flashbacks into the past of a handsome Greek astro-physicist, Fanis (George Corraface), the story goes back all the way to his childhood, 35 years ago, in his grandfather's Istanbul spice shop. There Fanis learns from the wise old man the secrets of life, and how they can all be interpreted in culinary terms.
He also witnesses but does not fully comprehend the uneasy relations of the Greek minority with the domestic population: he is fascinated by a little Turkish girl, Saime, who is willing to dance for him in exchange for cooking tips; he meets Mustafa, a boy his own age kept away by his father, a government dignitary, from the distracting company of Greeks; and most important of all, he discovers through his tutor's eyes the miraculous qualities of cinnamon and the significance of salt, pepper and how easy it is to understand everything, from astronomy to sex through their perspective.
The high dramatic point of the tale is reached when the Turkish government, during riots provoked by Turkish nationalists, expels all non-native Greeks, including Fanis' father, tearing a population away from a place they had grown to consider home, and will continue missing for the rest of their lives. (Boulmetis, like his protagonist, was born in Istanbul and his family had to leave in the same manner.)
Fannis, for whom the fond memories of Istanbul blend with the souvenirs of his grandfather's homespun philosophy and advice, and with the affection he nursed for the unforgettable little Saime, goes on to become a redoubtable cook, putting into practice everything he has been taught in his childhood, as well as an internationally respected scientist.
But his tale is ultimately secondary, for the main thrust is provided by the numerous mouthwatering kitchen scenes that expand on the notion of food not only as an essential cultural event, but also as a sensual experience that goes way beyond words, working the kind of magic that no science can provide.
A lavish production in local terms, with additional Istanbul locations and photography enhancing the exotic background, Tassos Boulmetis' picture skilfully manages to avoid any resounding political statements. The relationship between Greeks and Turks is treated, even in the most acute moments, discreetly enough not to make waves on either side.
Cleverly, every smile is matched with a sigh and the spell of Turkish culinary art, one of the most refined in the world, is served deliciously by its Greek ambassadors, suggesting a message of peace that should rule between the two nations.
True, on closer scrutiny the characters in this semi-autobiographical, warmly intimate stroll down memory lane may lack depth, the sentimental intrusions of the lush musical score are at times overdone and a touch of real plot wouldn't have hurt the proceedings. But to return to its original title, it still carries lots of cuisine and not too much politics, wrapped together in a glossy, bittersweet coat.
Corraface, as the adult Fanis, may add a pinch of glamour to the picture, but in this case he is overshadowed by the simple but touching performance of Ieroklis Michaelides, as Fanis' father.
Prod cos: Village Roadshow Productions
Int'l sales/Greek dist: Village Roadshow Greece
Prod: Lily Papadopoulos
Cinematography: Takis Zervoulakos
Ed: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Prod des: Olga Leondiadou
Costumes: Bianka Nikolareizi
Main cast: George Corraface, Ieroklis Michaelides, Renia Louizidou, Stelios Mainas, Tamer Karadagli, Basak Koklukaya, Tassos Bandis, Markos Osse