When Greek astronomer Fanis Iakovidis (George Corraface) learns his Turkish grandfather (Tassos Bandis) has taken ill, his mind flashes back to his childhood in Istanbul back in 1959. As a boy (Markos Osse) helping out at his grandfather’s magnificent spice shop, Fanos receives valuable life lessons from the old man how food and life both need a little spice to give them flavour. He blossoms into a remarkable cook, sharing recipes with a young Turkish girl named Saime (Gözde Akyildiz) who becomes his first love. Sadly, escalating tensions between Turkey and Greece result in Fanis’ family being deported to Athens and forced to leave grandpa and Saime behind. As years go by, a maturing Fanis (Odysseas Papaspliopoulos) struggles to adjust to his new life and a cuisine lacking that touch of spice.
A huge hit in its native Greece, A Touch of Spice extends its culinary theme to chapter headings named after courses in a meal (appetizer, main, dessert) and is part of a fine tradition of films that celebrate food as a cultural connection to the homeland, nourishment for the soul as well as the body. Think Babette’s Feast (1987) or Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). It opens with an image of a child suckling at its mother’s breast that says it all, although credits roll over the more esoteric image of an umbrella floating across the star-speckled reaches of outer space. Those with low tolerance for magical realism and pretentious philosophising about food will lose patience fairly quickly, but this wistful, melancholic comedy-drama exudes warmth and is grounded by its affecting theme of dislocation. Though their hearts belong in Istanbul, the Iakovidis family are considered Greeks in Turkey, yet labelled Turks in Athens.
Relations between Greece and Turkey have rarely been harmonious, what with several centuries of bad blood between them, so the film is unique in celebrating their shared heritage and - whisper it quietly - cultural similarities. While the film justly skewers the jingoistic mentality that drives various Greek authority figures, from schoolteachers to priests, to pour scorn on Fanos’ love of spicy food, it fumbles the point slightly given his family seem less than enthusiastic about his prodigious culinary talents. His parents are so alarmed they summon a priest to perform an exorcism! The film is surprisingly disparaging about Greek food. “With our cuisine, you always felt there was something missing”, remarks Fanis, drawing a parallel between the lack of spice and the subsequent lethargy that afflicts his own life. “Food and aromas get in the way of adjusting to Greek life”, says his teacher. Some Greek chefs may have something to say about that.
Supposedly drawing upon his own life experiences, writer-director Tassos Boulmetis imbues the film with a grandiose, CGI-laden sweep closer to a fantasy epic than the intimate family drama it is at heart. The story leans towards the anecdotal and proves somewhat shapeless, losing track of several promising threads. The final act contrives a touching reunion between seperated lovers but forgoes the expected romantic ending in favour of a more transcendental conclusion, underlining the reoccurring parallels between gastronomy and astronomy. George Corraface is a charismatic presence though the younger actors playing Fanis at various stages in his life are equally winning and performances are strong across the board.