Tasty production values and accessible, colorful subject matter elevate food movie “A Touch of Spice” to a plat du jour in the Greek cinema menu. Using the familiar device of cuisine as a metaphor for national identity and personal feelings, bitter-sweet pic about a man torn between his ethnicity (Greek) and the country of his birth (Turkey) makes its points lightly and entertainingly, with only a routine third act letting down the package. Given its universal emigre message, film has considerable chances, especially within Europe and Asia, as an exotic attraction, with fest platforming also indicated.
A considerable success in Greece since release last November, where it outperformed even “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Spice” is the first feature of both the Greek arm of entertainment group Village Roadshow (whose heavy investment in promo paid off) and writer-director Tasos Boulmetis (whose own life the story parallels). Film handles the fraught subject of Greek-Turkish relations in a way that emphasizes their similarities (as in cuisine) rather than their differences, making it digestible by auds of any stripe. Turkish release is slated for March.
Structured as a large flashback as a group of the protag’s old friends arrive from Istanbul for a welcome meal, the story, like any Greco-Turkish meal, is divided into three segs — “Appetizers,” “Main Courses” and “Desserts.”
First section, set in Istanbul in 1959, shows Fanis Iakovidis (Markus Osse) as a young boy growing up in the multi-cultural city, where Greeks and Turks live side by side. Fanis’ granddad, spice shop owner Vasilis (Tasos Bandis), tells him that “life, like food, requires salt, too” and impregnates him with a broad, non-denominational outlook tinged with the mystical. Fanis’ best friend is a Turkish girl, Saime (Yockse Gildis).
Ignorant of growing political tensions, Fanis is heartbroken when the family is split up. As a Greek citizen, Fanis’ father (Ieroklis Mihailidis) has his property confiscated and moves with his wife (Renia Louizidou) and Fanis to Athens; old Vasilis stays in his beloved Istanbul. Back in Greece, the family suffers the initial irony of being treated as de facto “Turks.”
Flash forward to Athens in 1964, and Fanis is showing real talent as a cook, much to the comic dismay of his parents and teachers who fear he may be turning into a homosexual. Fanis still misses his grandfather, and even his father notes that “Greece was much more beautiful in our minds than what we found here.”
Last seg is set in the present day, as the mature Fanis (George Corraface), a respected astrophysics prof, finally returns to Istanbul, where his granddad is mortally ill. He re-meets Saime (Basak Koklukaya) — now married, with a daughter, to an air force officer (Tamer Karadagli). Ending, like film as a whole, is gently emotional rather than overwhelming.
Especially in the scenes between Fanis and Saime, the third section, played in variable English, comes perilously close to romantic soap, and is redeemed only by a poignant, dignified scene between the two men, who discuss their ties to Saime in a bathhouse one day. Sequence helps restore the balance to a film that generally leaves broader issues to be there for the taking rather than shoved in the viewer’s face, and in which the metaphor of food and spices functions just fine, with much comic relief.
As usual, Corraface cuts a handsome but rather bland figure. It’s the other players, both kids and adults, who give the movie its character and flavor, especially Mihailidis’ lovely old grandfather, who raises cuisine to the level of philosophy and has a neat linguistic bon mot for every occasion.
Period design and look are both spot on, lovingly caught by d.p. Takis Zervoulakos’ mouth-watering widescreen compositions. Other tech credits are tip-top, with helmer Boulmetis’ experience in making TV commercials showing through. Coin spent on some striking CGI work (at the start of each section) helps lift the movie into the international arena.
Original Greek title is an untranslatable play on words, meaning literally “Political Cuisine” but also “Cuisine of the Polis” — as in Constantinopolis, the original (Greek) name for Istanbul.