Friday, April 24, 2009

Greek Cinema: A Touch of Spice

It is a cliché to say you can’t go home again, but for Greeks expelled from Turkey in 1964, it is undoubtedly a trickier proposition. Coming back to Istanbul proves particularly painful for Fanis Iakovides, the astronomer protagonist of Tassos Boulmetis’s sweeping culinary family drama A Touch of Spice (trailer here), which opens theatrically in New York today.

Iakovides knows about two things, cooking and astronomy, because of seeds sown by his grandfather Vassilis during his formative years. Yet he has not seen his grandfather, a respected Turkish citizen, since the rest of the family was forced to leave the country. Every time Vassilis plans to visit Greece, some pretext crops up to cancel his trip. Just when Iakovides expects his grandfather will finally arrive in Greece, word comes that the old man has been hospitalized. Now it is the astronomer who will make a trip he has long avoided, back to Istanbul.

Spice follows in the tradition of food-as-metaphor films, some of which have been very good (Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman) and some not so great (Chocolat). In this case, each segment of Boulmetis’s film corresponds to the course of a meal. During “appetizers” we see the family’s life in Turkey before the expulsion. “Main Course” corresponds to the tumultuous events of the mid-1960’s, both for the transplanted Iakovides and the country of Greece. During “Desert,” Fanis the astronomer finally makes his bittersweet homecoming.

In truth, the food motifs are sometimes a bit overdone, as when great meaning is invested in the fact that the word “astronomy” is contained in the term “gastronomy.” However, the story of Fanis Iakovides is compelling enough to work with a few overcooked side-dishes.

The heart of the film is the relationship between Iakovides and his lost childhood love Saime. Spice shows how outside events can disrupt the lives of average people, repeatedly sabotaging their hopes for romance. George Corraface, the French-born Greek actor perhaps best known to American audiences for the title role in 1992’s Christopher Columbus, is excellent as the adult Fanis. As Saime, Basak Köklükaya displays a genuine warmth and grace that makes his enduring love quite believable. They show legitimate screen chemistry in their brief scenes together and frustratingly look like a perfect couple, which is why their story works so well in Spice.

At its best, Spice is a moving portrait of regret, precipitated by events well beyond anyone’s control. The food looks great, but the central love story and the sensitive performances of Corraface and Köklükaya are the real meat and potatoes of the film. It opens today in New York at the Cinema Village.