Theatre of Life: food for thought and thought for food

Can being fed high-end food “with dignity” in a beautiful setting truly enrich your life when you are homeless and dispossessed? This question is just one of many that have been swirling in my mind since watching Theatre of Life a couple of days ago. It is also just one of the many reasons why I recommend watching this film.

Ostensibly this is a documentary about food waste, but in fact it is much more. It tells the story of top chef Massimo Bottura’s ambitious project to rescue uneaten food from the 2015 Milan World Expo Fair from being discarded. He arranges to use these leftovers to run a soup kitchen, named the Refettorio Ambrosiano, in a poor quarter of Milan.

To assist him, Bottura has called upon a veritable Who’s Who of famous chefs from around the world. At the same time the local priest, Don Giuliano, has selected some 90 or so regular “guests” for the Refettorio from among the homeless and refugees who live in the surrounding areas.

Theater of LifeThe film alternates between shots of the famous chefs at work and scenes from the daily lives of the guests. And this is where the documentary’s heart truly lies, at least for me. While the chefs rhapsodise about the challenge of coming up with extraordinary meals from a mish-mash of leftover ingredients, the guests worry about where to spend the night.

Writer and director Peter Svatek’s skill in making this delicate juxtaposition cleverly leaves you with many questions. What are the chefs’ motivations? Is what they are doing truly helpful? How, if at all, are the recipients’ lives changed by taking part in this project?

Your questions and answers may differ from mine – to be honest, my own opinions have changed a number of times since I started pondering these issues. I am no film critic, but I would argue that this ability to make you reconsider your beliefs can only be art.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there are many more reasons to watch this powerful documentary, even if the ethical questions at the heart of Theatre of Life do not interest you.

Bottura watching an artwork

Chef Bottura in front of an artwork at the Refettorio Ambrosiano

Foodies will enjoy the fly on the wall look at famous chefs at work creating culinary masterpieces from day-old bread. I loved the scene where Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame confesses to Bottura that it’s been four years since he has cooked like this, and Bottura’s gleeful response that he will not only be cooking but also serving the food.

Those with an artistic bent will admire the beauty that characterises even the poorest areas in Italy: the Refettorio for instance is located in a stunning abandoned theatre, which, as a result of Bottura’s efforts, is adorned with works by famous artists.

And Italophiles will revel in the Italian-ness of it all, that intangible mélange of gesture, language, big personalities and way of being which plunges you straight back into wonderful expressive Italy.

So check out the schedule of screenings of Theatre of Life in your city and head on down – you won’t regret it.

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