A Touch of Spice

(Politiki Kouzin
a, Tassos Boulmetis, Greece, 2003)


Within the dreaded, unofficial genre of the food movie, Tassos Boulmetis’ A Touch of Spice at least has the courage of its convictions.


There is nothing in this film that is not explained by reference to the effect of food, spices especially. Passions, beliefs, family relations, the patterns of history, every kind of destiny whether social or sentimental – even (in a memorable image) the movements of the planets are yoked to this seemingly all-powerful blandishment.


Many films rest on cute metaphors (life is like traffic, a boxing match or the weather report), but A Touch of Spice goes way beyond using food as a mere symbolic device. In scene after scene we watch it being lovingly prepared and consumed; the kitchen becomes the great laboratory wherein the world is created. The film goes so far as to adapt Hollywood-style script structure to its own ends: intertitles do not declare Part One or Act Two but Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert …


With all this food fetishism in full view, it is sometimes hard for Boulmetis to get a fix on his story line. But there is an autobiographical impulse underlying the project: a desire to bear witness to the history of Greeks who lived in Istanbul and were forced, in the 1950s, to relocate to Greece . The plaintive cry of the exile fills A Touch of Spice: in no place do these characters ever truly feel at home or accepted as locals.


As a young child, Fanis (George Corraface) disturbs his parents by preferring to work culinary marvels on his portable kitchen, even in the schoolyard, rather than engage in typical boy behaviour. When we first see him as an adult astronomer in Greece, we know that some disconnection, both internal and external, has taken place: where’s the food?


It seems that Fanis has turned his back not only on the wisdom of spices, but also on the person who most profoundly imparted it to him, Grandpa Vassilis (Ieroklis Michailidis). Also missing is the memory of his childhood sweetheart, a Turkish girl named Saime (Renia Louizidou).


This story contains both the trauma of history and the agony of love, but both are approached obliquely, indirectly – not always to the film’s advantage. Partly this is because its political aspect is shown as the young Fanis experiences it, with only a partial, incomplete understanding. And the romantic intrigue seems almost misplaced by the film for a long time, until Fanis at last makes his way back to the lost traces of his past in Istanbul.


The bias of this story, as in so many grand, mythically-inclined tales, is shamelessly masculine. The role of women is unfortunately clinched by a motif that links the sight of a mother sweetening her nipple with a little sugar for her suckling child, with Fanis’ time as a cook in a brothel, recompensed with sexual favours. Beyond that circuit of food and sex, in which it is hard to tell the Mothers from the Whores, there is only Saime – sublime, angelic and seemingly unattainable.


Nonetheless, for much of its running time A Touch of Spice is a pleasing entertainment. An enormous box-office hit in Greece, and the result of the presence of Village Roadshow (originally an Australian company) there as both exhibitor and producer, it serves up a winning blend of music (by Evanthia Reboutsica), poignancy and humour.


Indeed, the film’s spirit is most effectively caught in an outrageous running gag that tracks the on-off evolution of an old woman’s Parkinson’s Disease in terms of the new-fangled cooking gadgets with which she comes in contact.


MORE food movies: Au petit Marguery, Mostly Martha


MORE Greek cinema: Landscape in the Mist, The Very Poor Inc., A Song is Not Enough, Oxygen

© Adrian Martin September 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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