Food equals power in Marcos Jorge’s sly culinary revenge drama “Estomago: A Gastronomic Story.” Though its characterizations aren’t always consistent and its structure a tad over-ambitious, the pic offers a playful look at a destitute man who discovers that talent in the kitchen is a sure means to success. Lensed by Toca Seabra (“Lower City”) with an appropriate level of grit, “Estomago” picked up multiple prizes at the Rio fest, including the audience award, suggesting that even offshore arthouse diners may enjoy this tasty, though not fully digested, meal.
Story shuttles back and forth between the present, in prison, and the past, whenRaimundo Nonato (the busy Joao Miguel) gets off a bus and wanders, homeless and hungry, into a cheap luncheonette. Stingy owner Zulmiro (Zeca Cenovicz) bullies Nonato into working for room and board, but soon Nonato’s tasty croquettes are a neighborhood sensation, enticing local whore Iria (Fabiula Nascimento, an appropriately vulgar epicurean) as well as restaurateur Giovanni (Carlo Briani).
Running parallel is Nonato’s present, beginning with his arrival in prison, where he circumvents the usual newcomer’s low ranking by offering to cook for his cellmates (Brazilian prisons obviously offer a measure of independence not usually found in the States). His sophisticated preparations earn him the nickname “Oregano,” along with the protection of feared topman Bujiu (Babu Santana).
Back to the past, Giovanni offers Nonato a job and training in his fancy Italian eatery. Life is good for the previously hapless chef. But obviously, some misdeed will send him to prison, where his status in the pecking order continues to rise as the reasons for his incarceration play out.
All this shuttling can get confusing, especially at the start. Once it becomes clear which scenes are past and which are present, it’s easy to settle in and enjoy Nonato’s awakening to the satisfactions of power.
Script could be tighter if its inconsistencies in developing personality were eliminated or better explained: Giovanni’s role is particularly underwritten, his bursts of anger falling into the usual restaurant-owner stereotype.
Miguel (“Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures,” “Suely in the Sky”) negotiates it all with singular aplomb, embodying both the groggy-eyed innocent and the energized, calculating professional he becomes. Thesp won the Rio jury’s actor prize.
Low-key visuals are a strong point, capturing the shady part of town Nonato makes his home, its cheap artificial lighting deliberately at odds with the sophistication of Giovanni’s place. Pic plays with music volume, at first to amusing effect, but the device becomes overused, as do some of the tunes, sounding like a bizarre cross between Astrud Gilberto and a Donna Summer harmonized intro.