27 October, 2010

Estômago: A Gastronomic Story (2008)

I was able to see some recent Brazilian movies at the fourth annual Brazilian Film Week sponsored by the Embassy of Brazil here in DC. Of the movies I was able to see, Estômago (A Gastronomic Story) was certainly the most skillful and provocative.

Estômago, the second film by director Marcos Jorge, is less a film about food than about power struggles, with food more often serving a tactical role and indeed sometimes taking on the strength and position of powerful weaponry. Nonato, the weak and fawning cook at the center of the story, has a natural and overwhelming talent for combining ingredients and a genuine fascination for how food can be used and modified, but his appreciation for the culinary arts never acquires the transcendent zeal depicted in, say, Ratatouille. Though there are two other, more experienced chefs in the film who guide Nonato on his path, neither of them display any virtuoso feats of kitchen wizardry nor any reverent belief in the transformative power of culinary art for culinary art's sake. Mr. Zulmira (Zeca Cenovicz), the owner of the greasy spoon where Nonato first learns to cook, sticks to the same tried and true recipes--unhealthy deep fried classics that will guarantee a steady stream of clients ready to offer up their grubby dollars. Zulmira, who has no skill of his own in the kitchen, uses his restaurant merely as a lifeboat on which to sail through the murky waters of reality. A cynical and controlling man, he teaches Nonato the rule of sink or swim.

He also doesn't pay the poor, young man any wages other than room and board, so when Nonato is offered a chance to work in the kitchen of Mr. Giovanni (Carlo Briani) and receive an actual paycheck, Nonato eagerly moves up. Mr. Giovanni runs Boccaccio, a fancy and expensive restaurant that serves "international cuisine" in a "friendly atmosphere." Giovanni is vastly more talented than Zulmira, but he is hardly a maestro. The most poetry he uses when teaching his art to Nonato is a smattering of trite metaphors comparing meat to women's behinds, but he most often compares food to money. Explaining that a simple switch to sophisticated gorgonzola cheese allows him to charge eight dollars for a traditional dessert that would usually be worth less than one, Giovanni exclaims, "That's art!" An artist spends a few dollars on paints and canvas and sells a painting for a million dollars. To Giovanni, much like Zulmira, this moneymaking motive is the central force behind all creation. We live to survive, and a true artist is able to survive more well off than others.

This conceit reaches its most literal level when Nonato lands in an overcrowded prison cell, where a violent and rigid hierarchy determines everything from when and how much one eats to where one sleeps. When Bujiú (Babu Santana), the psychopathic autocrat who occupies the top bunk and calls all the shots, learns that Nonato can transform their worm-infested prison rations into something not only edible but delicious, Nonato shrewdly uses his modest abilities to climb up the ranks of respect and power. Estômago wisely makes Nonato's ascent teetering and unsteady rather than straightforward, for not all tastes are equal and our stomachs often fall prey to prejudice. When Nonato tries too hard to impress the simpleminded Bujiú--by, say, bringing stinky, moldy, but delicious gorgonzola into the cell--his sophisticated pretentious results in fiery backlash. Food can be as political and controversial as religion.

The story of Nonato's prison sentence is overlapped with the story of his restaurant career, and editing by Luca Alverdi makes the two flow seamlessly, building upon each other and drawing out comparisons between the filthy rat race of life and the pecking order of prison. Whether locked in Zulmira's back room with the boss screaming through the ceiling, working in Giovanni's exquisite basement kitchen as Giovanni slaps the ass of Nonato's prostitute girlfriend, or sleeping on the floor of an ant-infested prison cell, Nonato's surroundings and his delicate position within them are always remarkably similar. Nonato finds solace in the company of Íria (Fabiula Nascimento), the headstrong and likable call girl with an eating obsession who becomes Nonato's girlfriend, but even their relationship is mired in power struggle. Nonato feeds Íria's insatiable belly--the quickest way to her heart-- with his sumptuous cooking, and she in turn feeds his unquenchable jealousy with her scandalous career.

The two stories come to an intriguing head at the same time, simultaneously revealing how Nonato landed in prison and how he eventually gained and asserted his power, but perhaps the film's four writers (Cláudia da Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito, Marcos Jorge, and Lusa Silvestre) are to blame for the ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. Nonato acts and gains power moments before the end credits role, so we never actually see him in a position of power. How would he rule? Would the people beneath him suffer just as much as he has always suffered beneath others? Our general impression of Nonato throughout the film is a positive one, yet his final acts in the climax are shocking and demented and his attitude toward them is sinister. The plot of Estômago is structured well, and yet the denouement leaves too many important questions unanswered, as though the two hour film should continue for another hour. It is disappointing and unappetizing to leave the theater feeling as though two hours have been spent getting to know the mere revenge tale of a shrewd and calculating sociopath.

Nevertheless, the acting of the entire cast is top notch, particularly that of João Miguel as the pathetic but endearing Nonato and Nascimento as his rotund femme fatale, who frequently verges on becoming a stereotype yet always saves herself with just the right flash of her eyes. Jorge's direction hits all the right beats at just the right moments, and the cinematography by Toca Seabra--with its to-be-expected closeups of cutting boards and skillets--is surprisingly fresh and scintillating. His approach manages to make even a concoction of fried ants look delightful.

Though ultimately Estômago suffers from a slight dearth of meaning and heart, its execution is engaging and masterful. Marcos Jorge is a new director to pay attention to.

Estômago (2008)
d: Marcos Jorge w: Cláudia da Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito, Marcos Jorge, Lusa Silvestre
(João Miguel, Fabiula Nascimiento)

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