In a culture where food waste and homelessness, World Fairs and a global refugee crisis, pre-peeled carrots and celebrity chefs coexist without apparent discord, anyone willing to present these phenomena in direct relation to each other is likely to have dramatic results. This is, perhaps, why Canadian director Peter Svatek’s critically-acclaimed new documentary about an unusual soup kitchen is called Theater of Life.
In the fall of 2014, the city of Milan was preparing to host Expo 2015, a universal exhibition featuring the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Chef Massimo Bottura, chef patron of Osteria Francescana (First place, World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016), asked forty of his friends—all world-renowned chefs—to help him with an unusual project. He wanted to run a soup kitchen in a poor neighbourhood in Milan—with the ingredients exclusively supplied by food waste from Expo pavilions. The group would simultaneously feed the local homeless and refugee population, while raising awareness about waste.
Not knowing where to start, Bottura turned to a Catholic charitable organization called Caritas to help. Bottura began calling the dining room his refettorio, or refectory, a term that traditionally designates the dining room in an abbey or monastery. Bottura wanted to extend the refectory’s focus on beauty, spirituality, and community to his soup kitchen. With this model in mind, he commissioned top Italian artists and designers such as Carlo Benvenuto and Maurizio Nannucci to transform an abandoned theatre in the Greco district of Milan.
During Expo 2015’s run from May to October, the Refettorio Ambrosiano served daily meals to ninety-six people. They ate homemade ravioli and strawberry and rose petal salad sitting at twelve tables under the copper-plated ceiling of the old theatre, now emblazoned with a neon sign reading ‘no more excuses.’
Svatek, who works in both narrative and documentary filmmaking, is friends with Bottura and heard about the soup kitchen idea very early on. Svatek and producer Josette Gauthier approached the National Film Board of Canada for funding through their production company, Triplex Films. According to Svatek, the NFB “said yes immediately,” and Svatek spent much of 2015 in Milan, documenting the creation and operation of Refettorio Ambrosiano.
“I really wanted to make the film as much about the people for whom the food was being prepared as about the chefs,” Svatek says. His film follows the soup kitchen’s clients—people like Fatou—an immigrant from Senegal who came to Italy because she was persecuted for her physical disabilities (yet still hopes to pursue a modelling career), and Fawaz, a homeless man on the waiting list for almost every shelter in Milan—beyond the refettorio walls and into their difficult everyday lives.
“What struck me immediately,” Svatek says, “was the ridiculous contradiction between these haute cuisine chefs and the really desperate and hungry people in Milan.” At one point in the film, Fawaz leaves because he feels he is being treated like an object.
“Are these chefs doing this just to polish their own stars?” Svatek asks. “Is this for real?”
In an attempt to answer his own question, Svatek refers to the responses of some of the refettorio chefs, all of whom seem amply aware of the irony. The consistent refrain is that chefs feed people—and that’s the only reason they are in Milan.
Svatek remembers René Redzepi (co-owner of Noma, Copenhagen) making the point that everyone is always asking chefs to shut up and go back in the kitchen. “It belongs to everybody, the responsibility to take care of other people who are in dire straits,” Redzepi says in the film. “Maybe they’re in a situation that’s even worse, and they really need a cake.”
Fri., Dec. 23 to Wed., Dec. 28
Directed by Peter Svatek
Metro Cinema at the Garneau, $9 to $12