‘Theater of Life’: feeding body and soul

New NFB film profiles Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who is bringing haute cuisine to the homeless

23 mins read

“We want a home. Not just a room.”

Don Giuliano, a priest in Milan, Italy, is trying to bring Stefi and Marco, a homeless couple, to a shelter, sparing them their usual refuge in the Monza Train Station—an offer they refuse. “Over there, it’s like being enslaved,” says Stefi. They prize their freedom, such as it is, too highly to accept governmental assistance and its concomitant rules and regulations. Vagrancy is preferable to charity.

Stefi and Marco are regulars at the Refettorio Ambrosiano, a soup kitchen in Milan established by Massimo Bottura, a chef widely considered one of the best in the world and whose Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, topped this year’s annual list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. The Refettorio is a special project of Bottura’s. It’s run by Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church, out of an abandoned theatre in the working-class Greco neighbourhood of Milan. Since its inception during Milan’s 2015 Expo (themed Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life), the Refettorio has seen a revolving cast of master chefs—60 of them, from around the world—using only wasted food to feed 90-odd homeless people every day. Set at the intersection of charity, haute cuisine and contemporary art—renowned artists and designers made the furniture, decorated the interior and created the sign on the outside of the building that reads “NO MORE EXCUSES”—the Refettorio is meant to approximate the medieval refectory as a place of nourishment, beauty and discourse: a home for the homeless.

The Refettorio’s origins serve as the basis of director Peter Svatek’s new NFB film, Theater of Life. “Right from the beginning it struck me that this was an incredible coming together of two very different worlds,” he says. “Massimo’s idea was to invite the most famous chefs in haute cuisine to cook food from waste at Expo, which was an interesting gesture to publicise the issue of food waste. But it’s a moment where the migrant crisis in Europe is really serious, and in Milan you feel it very strongly. And the issue of homelessness is also a big deal in Milan. So, I thought, what about these people who eat at the soup kitchen who don’t really know who these chefs are who are cooking for them? What’s going to happen when these two very different worlds come together?”

But Svatek is a filmmaker, not an essayist or an activist, and he is quick to say that Theater of Life is not an “issues” film. Alternating between the two worlds—observing, on the one hand, the chefs at work and, on the other, a few of the diverse cast of regulars, delving into their past and present struggles to establish lives—the film is more concerned with creating a panoramic portrait of the Refettorio’s story and cast of characters than with trying to make a polemic point. Instead of building to an argument, the idea of using waste food to feed the poor fades into the background; human stories take over, and the underlying concept is transformed into a more abstract principle about the connection between food and home. Says Svatek, “A question that I asked myself often while making the film is, what is home to a homeless person? What is home to a refugee? And how did this experience actually touch those people and what did it give them?”

To investigate those questions, Svatek found a diverse cast of subjects from among the Refettorio’s patrons. “My aim was to get different kinds of stories,” says Svatek. “Refugees, Italians, foreigners coming from Africa, from the Middle East. I was really looking for the range of people who were eating at the Refettorio.” Among these are the homeless couple Stefi and Marco; West African refugees Christiana (from Nigeria) and Fatou (Senegal); Jordanian-Italian Fawaz; and the heavily tattooed ex-addict Giorgio. Through the lens of the Refettorio’s customers, Theater of Life reveals both a panorama of Milanese outsiders and the development of relationships between them along with a variety of views on the Refettorio itself. Some of the Refettorio’s Caritas-imposed strictures initially troubled Svatek. “You had to go every day, five days a week, to the Refettorio,” he says. “You had to be there on time, and you had to go for at least three months. If you didn’t, you were out. I thought, I don’t know, that seems pretty rigid. I wasn’t keen on that at first. But the advantage of that was that it gave an opportunity for real relationships to form in the Refettorio.”

He admits, though, that not all of the patrons felt at ease there. The film witnesses complaints about portion sizes, the indiscriminate serving of pork, the absence of alcohol and, for Fawaz in particular, the feeling of being objectified—in Svatek’s words, the perception that “the chefs were concentrating on the food, the tables, themselves, Expo, but not on the problems of the people who were there.” Fawaz tells us that he’s on the waiting list for every shelter in Milan, finally taking a bed on a short-term basis to get him to the winter cut-off when shelters are forced to open their doors. In his meeting, Fawaz is unduly harangued by a social worker insisting he take advantage of his stay there to find more permanent digs—as though anything else could be on his mind—to which he meekly acquiesces. It’s hard not to empathise with his plight, and to see the Refettorio for the relatively small gesture it is, ultimately insignificant to the general trajectory of his life.

Though his film is generous in presenting these different points of view, Svatek disagrees with Fawaz’s perception of the chefs’ motives. “A lot of these chefs think at a very deep level and realise that a shared meal is one of our most ancient social gatherings and that the whole notion of being able to provide something to these people is important,” he says. “A lot of people tell chefs that they should just go back to the kitchen and shut up, not get involved in these kinds of issues. When I asked one of the chefs—René Redzepi from Denmark—about it, he said, ‘Look, basically, that’s bullshit.’ He said that every human being has a responsibility to take care of people in dire straits. I thought that was really touching. It really meant a lot to him and a lot of chefs who were there. “It’s not that they think they’re going to change anybody’s life—it’s more that the gesture is an end in itself.”

That said, POV sensed a tension in Bottura’s motivation for starting the Refettorio. Did it emerge out of a sense of social justice, or was it an art project mixed with a professional challenge?

“That’s very perceptive, that’s really what did happen,” Svatek says. “Massimo is somebody who has achieved everything there is to achieve in the world of haute cuisine. This year he’s been named the #1 chef in the world. I think he was looking to do something different. A lot of people invited him to do some cooking for Expo but he wanted to do something more meaningful than just cook a meal or two for the same kind of people that eat in his restaurant in Modena.”

And yet, artistry was never to be sacrificed. “It really mattered to him that it was a beautiful place,” says Svatek. To that end, he teamed up with artists Carlo Benvenuto, Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino and Maurizio Nannucci, as well as master furniture designers and, of course, dozens of master chefs. Via email, Bottura tells POV that the Refettorio was ultimately a cultural project, and that “this means that it is also a social, artistic and environmental project. It is a place where we want to raise awareness about food waste, and social exclusion as well; a place where communities can be built and empowered. When we talk about fighting against food waste, we are addressing a cultural problem. With that thought in mind, we are recovering not only food that would otherwise be thrown away but also abandoned buildings that have been neglected as well as people that have been discarded by society.”

Always philosophically minded, Bottura goes on: “The concepts of Beauty and the Good cannot stand by themselves; they complete each other, they’re two sides of the same coin. Building up beautiful spaces, serving beautiful dishes is our way of bringing dignity back to the table. Art, design and community are all part of this aim to create a place where inclusion and well-being bring out the best in everyone—volunteers, guests, chefs and the food. Our project is different because of its ultimate goal, which is not just to provide a warm meal. We want our guests to be engaged in a holistic approach to nourishment: feed the body and the soul.”

“But,” Svatek notes, “that was kind of an intellectual concept. I don’t think what Massimo fully saw coming was how everything was going to happen on the human level.”

Bottura agrees. “I became aware of the power of the project by looking at our guests. When they first came, they just sat down, ate from their plate, stood up and left. Nobody spoke to anyone else, nobody looked at me or the other guests in the eye. But after a few weeks, I saw people smiling and hugging each other. It was a party every night! By the end of the first month at the Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan, I felt that our guests were one big family. We knew each other by name. It was sad when a guest left, but often it was also a time for celebration because it meant they were in a better place in their lives. And they left with a rebuilt network and a community on their side.”

Bottura’s progression from abstract social issue to human connection is identical to Svatek’s. The Montreal-based director relished the opportunity to meet both the chefs and the customers at the Refettorio, to follow them through their experiences there, and—belying the film’s concluding text, “Life goes on”—to let them have the freedom not to come to any particular preordained message emerging out of that process.

“Before I made the film, people wanted to know what the outcome was going to be, what transformational experience was going to happen to people,” he says. “I don’t honestly believe that these big transformations that sometimes happen in fictional movies often happen in real life.” One could imagine this film going other ways—becoming a didactic piece on the issue of waste, say, or a human interest piece coming to a Humans of New York -style epiphany. Svatek steered clear of those, opting for ambiguity. “Those are the kinds of films that I love,” he says. “Films that don’t preach at you, that just let you experience the situation and draw your own conclusions.”

The opening shot of the film proves Svatek’s skill. Eyes locked on the camera, Stefi delivers a dramatic monologue on home and homelessness. As the monologue reaches a climax, a train blows into the station from behind her. It’s a powerful moment.

“Stefi is a poet and she used to be in a semi-professional band that performed for a while but fell apart,” Svatek tells me. “The very first day that I met them, one of the first things Stefi did was recite that poem. It was something that was very meaningful to her. When we began filming…she wanted to perform the poem! I said well, let’s do it on the platform, the train platform. So we just stepped outside and she started to recite the poem and that train coming by just happened. It was extraordinary! When that train came and just blew right past her, I was really hoping she wasn’t going to stop reciting the poem and she did not, so it makes for quite an extraordinary moment to open the film.”

The film is full of moments like that: ambiguous, charged. There’s the Nigerian refugee Christiana relating her story, full of murder, abduction, prostitution, displacement; then in the next scene, she’s singing and dancing like a schoolgirl. There’s wheelchair-bound Fatou talking about needing to escape Senegal before an election—handicapped people get sacrificed for good luck, apparently—before going on to pursue her dream of modeling. There’s Giorgio graphically describing his grisly suicide attempt as though it were a charming anecdote and then admonishing the members of his therapy group to take personal responsibility for hygiene and purpose, eliciting thousand-yard stares from his audience.

It’s clear that these are the moments Svatek relishes. “I love to make people films,” he says. “That’s what moves me as a filmmaker. I’m not an issue guy. I’m socially minded, like most people. I care about all those issues, but what really makes me tick both as a spectator and a filmmaker is when you get to know the people—the human aspect. That’s what really attracted me to this project. That’s the part that I enjoyed the most.”

The end of the film sees Stefi and Marco singing “Like A Rolling Stone” on the streets of Milan. The resonant line is, of course, “No direction home.” On-screen text tells us that not much has changed for most of the film’s subjects—some have found work or places to live, some haven’t. “Life goes on.”

The Refettorio goes on, too; in fact, it’s bigger than ever. “Now that Expo is over, the food, of course, can’t come from the pavilions any more but it is coming from supermarkets because all over the world supermarkets are beginning to feed food banks with food that would otherwise be thrown away. One of the major supermarkets in Milan is supplying the Refettorio. Also, a local school in the neighbourhood, Greco, where the film was shot, heard about the project and got excited about it and has taken it on as their project to collect waste food and deliver it to the Refettorio every week.”

Meanwhile, Bottura has taken the concept on the road. Via his restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana, Bottura established a foundation, Food for Soul, to set up future projects. First up was the Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics, which he cooked at for three weeks and then handed off to Brazilian social gastronomy pioneer David Hertz’s eponymous organization Gastromotiva. His next stop is up in the air: he’s in talks with people in London, Los Angeles and New York. (Svatek tells POV that Bottura’s contact in New York is Robert De Niro.) “I would be very happy to see the project become a global way of addressing the issue, not as a solution in itself, but as a means of finding a better solution to both poverty and waste,” says Bottura. “Hopefully our actions will lead to policy change, to government awareness, and also to more community participation.”

For Bottura, it’s all about culture. From the perspectives of both the kitchen and the dining room, food is a manifestation of culture, central to questions of survival, sociality and beauty. Bottura rises to rhetorical heights in expounding on the nature of food:

“Cooking is a matter of mindfulness, being conscious of the potential power of an extra-virgin olive oil, a particular technique, an intuition… If these ingredients come together in a harmonious and thoughtful way, they can become edible bites of culture. When this happens, the kitchen is not just a routine, manual labour or an intuitive gesture: it is CULTURE. I do believe that culture is the future of food. Through culture we become aware. That raises our consciousness and opens the door to a sense of responsibility. With a mission in hand, we can unite and make great things happen—together.

“Ethics and Aesthetics are one and the same, said the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This applies to the kitchen and the future of food. Who is to say that a more ethical future is not also a more delicious future?”

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