Food and the lessons it holds for us, quite apart from sheer survival, are a minor genre in modern movies. Almost all are celebrations of human companionship, nurturing and generosity. Babette’s Feast (1987/Denmark,) one of the earliest and in some ways the most memorable, to Eat Drink Man Woman (1994/Taiwan,) Like Water for Chocolate (1992/Mexico,) Big Night (1996/US-Italian) and Tampopo (1985/Japan) are just a few. (A couple of lists here and here.)
Now A Touch of Spice, (2003) a Greek movie by Tassos Boulmetis can be added to the list. And though it is structured by unhappy events — the 1964 expulsion of Greeks from Istanbul — it is not an unhappy movie; nostalgic and wistful, yes, tragic, no.
Fanis [Georges Corraface], is a handsome middle-age professor of astro-physics in Athens. Hearing that his grandfather Vasilis [Tassos Bandis] has once again promised to visit Athens from Constantinople he gathers up friends of the old man and prepares a full table of “appetizers,” as this section of the film is titled.
Through long flash-backs and voice over, we enter into memories of his idyllic childhood in “The City” as the Greeks refer to it, where he helped in his grandfather’s store and learned the secrets of spices and herbs. The colors are rich and warm, the spices carefully poured, pinched, enumerated and woven into lessons on life. The young Fanis [Markos Osse] is enamored of Saime [Gözde Akyildiz], a Turkish girl, and daughter of his mother’s best friend. When they play house, he does the cooking and she does the dancing.
Through his boyish eyes we see the worry in the faces of the adults as events in Cyprus heat up; Greeks and Turks, having long occupied the island together, are engaging in armed battles; the national governments standing by their fellow nationals. The family, long time residents of Istanbul, is ordered to leave, along with thousands of others. Saima gives Fanis her play-kitchen they had spent so many hours with. When they arrive in Athens one says, ” Here we are treated like Turks, and in Constantinople they say we are Greeks.”
Fanis is entered into school where he alarms the administration by his obsession with cooking – avoiding the boys to play with the girls. He is made to join the Boy Scouts in part to encourage his manly qualities and in part to prove the family’s patriotism — being suspect as ‘Turks.’ All this is done in a light, comedic style, a boy’s memories, unweighted by full participation in the events of the time. The adults talk nostalgically of The City — the most beautiful in the world– and their memories of food and friends. Athens does not begin to compare.
In the “main course” of the film, Fanis [Odysseas Papaspiliopoulos] is now eighteen, still a master cook, and applying the lessons of his grandfather’s spices to break up the engagement of a favorite uncle to a woman who will take from him his enjoyment of life.
Eventually we return with Fanis to the Istanbul not of memory, but of now, and his grandfather’s death. The party prepared at the beginning went on without him; he was too sick to come. At the funeral, Saime [Basak Köklükaya] now a beautiful woman, comes to pay her respects. Even with the passage of some 30 years he knows who she is. They talk. He discovers she is recently separated from Mustafa, a childhood acquaintance, whose appearance with his father earlier in the film had sketched in the growing estrangement between Turkish and Greek neighbors. In the section titled ‘dessert’ warmth begins to flow between them. He seeks and accepts a teaching position in an Istanbul university, and naturally, the occasion for cooking arises — her daughter’s birthday.
From my view, Boulmetis missed an opportunity here to extend and deepen the food metaphor. During the birthday preparations we see the food and Fanis and Saima engaged in setting it out. What is needed is a much more close-up look at the dishes, conversation and innuendo about the spices, how cumin or saffron would be, or not be, appropriate for the girl, how the scent of oregano or thyme had reminded each of the other over the years. Hands might have touched, bites might have been given, all of it bringing the food, the love, the memories, the possibilities together — before the return to reality sets in.
As the food is set out and the balloons are strung, Mustafa appears unannounced for his daughter’s birthday. The two men meet later in a hammam, where the heat, as with shell-fish, Fanis says ‘opens the soul.’ They share their love for Saima. She must decide.
As with many childhood recollection stories, all is not filled in. We’re not sure why Fanis became an astro-physicist and not a top chef. We have no idea why there is no mention of a woman in his life, with his good looks, great job and tender personality. For the fondness he has for his grandfather, reciprocated it seems, that they never met after the expulsion seems strange indeed. No matter. What the director chooses to tell is told well. The food and homilies about food and life fit with the sweetness of the sad memories.
You’ll want to open your spice drawer and look at the bottles and bags with new eyes.