If you don’t eat first, you’ll regret it — and the food films at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival might make you so hungry, you’ll want to eat again after. A couple of them feel a bit overlong; it’s nothing that should keep you away, just time in which you may be aware that your stomach is grumbling (and your mind is wandering to what you’re going to do about it as soon as possible).
“Funke,” USA, 2018, directed by Gab Taraboulsy
May 27, 6 p.m. at Lincoln Square; May 31, 6:30 p.m. at Pacific Place; June 1, 3 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown
“Passion’s not the word,” intones chef Evan Funke at the outset of this documentary. “I’m [expletive] maniacal about pasta.” From the chiaroscuro of the opening scene — does the long black case he’s snapping open contain a semi-automatic weapon? No, it’s his pasta-cutting tools — this rising-from-the-ashes story feels suspiciously scripted, overdetermined. If you’ve seen enough high-production-value food documentaries (or even if you haven’t), the self-seriousness — the drama — here might strike you as hilarious (such as, for instance, in that first scene). Then again, this is L.A.
And actual drama does build regardless: Funke’s coming off the spectacular fail of his first restaurant, Bucato, which involved missing millions, lawsuits and, clearly, bad blood. Will his new place, Felix, open on time and on budget, causing zero headaches for his hyperpoised Canadian investor? Well, that wouldn’t be much of a movie, would it?
“Funke” does all the usual food-documentary stuff — the childhood photos of baby Funke with food all over his face, the mom-as-inspiration, the pivotal trip to Italy, the famous chefs talking about his tremendous skills/personal challenges. The facile style doesn’t give Funke much depth; he comes off as a blowhard (and a yeller in the kitchen, or possibly worse). As the Felix build-out protracts, incurring rather unfathomable cost overruns, he blithely returns to Italy (perhaps at the behest of the documentary crew?). He visits the gorgeously old-school wood shop where his mattarello — a pasta-specific rolling pin — was made, makes orecchiette in the world’s most picturesque alley and pays homage to his pasta maestra, Alessandra Spisni. There’s also a little footage in Tokyo (long story), then it’s back to Los Angeles for the inevitable eleventh-hour drama.
But the pasta! Good lord, it looks so good, all throughout. And this film is a fun one to love/hate. Chefs and others in Seattle’s more down-to-earth restaurant industry might laugh out loud, probably while planning their next trip to Il Corvo.
“Virgin & Extra: The Land of the Olive Oil,” Spain, 2018, directed by José Luis López-Linares
May 18, 3:30 p.m. at Ark Lodge; June 2, 12:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown; June 3, 7 p.m. at Pacific Place
The Spanish province of Jaén produces 20% of the world’s olive oil. Be apprised: It is serious business, and this film about it is an hour and a half long. As regular viewers of food documentaries will be unsurprised to learn, we get into the portentous music and solemn, subtitled voice-over right away: “Olive oil is a living being” (maybe the translation’s a little funny?). But we also get into the beauty: The sweeping aerial shots of the olive groves are ridiculously gorgeous, and Jaén’s clouds, birds and ancient stone buildings are likewise (and you’ll be seeing them on the big screen instead of watching an advance showing on my laptop).
All kinds of experts come into play in “Virgin & Extra”: archaeologists, botanists, “gastronomic critics,” chefs, potters. The history of olive-oil production in the region takes us back to the ancient Roman empire — repositories of shattered amphorae that the oil traveled in look beautiful too, discarded in shard-heaps, too inexpensive to bother reusing. The chefs prepare exquisite dishes using olive oil in exquisitely lovely kitchens, evangelizing about its excellence. Butter gets trash-talked (along with France). The virtues of extra-virgin are extolled, and the black-and-white footage of harvests of yesteryear is rolled. A contemporary olive-oil cooperative mill, highly mechanized but open air, looks almost as pretty as everything else. Great-looking people evince incredible enthusiasm about Jaén’s olive oil. Italy, they’re coming for you!
For a good while, that enthusiasm is contagious, but eventually, your attention span for sweeping aerial shots and culinary drizzling may wane. Meanwhile, some fascinating-seeming olive-oil producers get short shrift, and you might want to know more about how that co-op works. Scenes of a tableful of “oil specialists” tasting olive oil get particularly repetitive (though you have to love a derisive remark about “the U.S. agitprop campaign” of yesteryear against omega-3 fats). If Turismo Jaén and the regional olive-oil industry association got together to make a film, it might look a lot like this one.
“Chef’s Diaries: Scotland,” United Kingdom, 2019, directed by Laura Otálora
May 22, 4:30 p.m. at Majestic Bay; June 4, 6:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown; June 5, 4:30 p.m. at the Egyptian
When the three Roca brothers of Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca decided to undertake some traveling — “to understand our smallness,” one of them says with charming sincerity — they naturally thought of their interest in whisky. A fine excuse to go to Scotland! This documentary trails their exploration as they spread out all over the place, investigating the natural resources of the country’s food in order to craft a high-end, molecular-gastronomical tribute upon returning home.
It’s a three-fish-out-of-water setup that makes for a fine twist on what could be just another unbearably gorgeous food documentary. Along with the requisite breathtaking shots of castles, cliffs and rolling green hills, the Rocas muse about the country’s character, their Spanish accents bumping up against Scottish ones (the latter, funnily, gets subtitled too). Of course, a deep dive into haggis is necessary — or “hag-geese,” as the case may be. One brother ventures to a Viking festival, which looks like excellent fun, and segues into smoking fish in the ancient way on a beach with a fifth-generation practitioner. Adorably shaggy Scottish cows with their bangs in their eyes are encountered, and cloudlike puffs on legs that are Shetland sheep; the seafood, heaped on a table outside on the Isle of Skye, looks incredible.
Those who aren’t still silencing their phone during the opening credits will notice this documentary is produced in association with The Macallan, famed producers of single malt scotch. The Rocas’ expedition there feels a little … advertorial. And after a time, both the Rocas and the Scottish chefs seem to be saying the same thing over and over. It’s a very worthy thing — about how Scotland’s local foods and cooking traditions have gone too long unappreciated, about a nascent revival. But a little more time spent with the Scottish seaweed forager, for instance, would not have been amiss.
Still, the dishes the Rocas prepare upon their return, tweezering and liquid-nitrogening away, may make you faint with desire — this one wins best closing credits, hands down.
More 2019 SIFF food films
Prefestival screeners were not available for review, but “Lives with Flavor” presents two episodes of Ruth Zachs Babani and Pablo Gasca Gollás’ documentary series on world-renowned Mexican chefs — one about Monica Patiño and one on Carlos Gaytán (May 29, 6:30 p.m. at Lincoln Square; June 6, 7 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown; June 8, 1:30 p.m. at Pacific Place). And the documentary “Le Chocolat de H,” directed by Takashi Watanabe, explores the work and life of Japanese artisanal chocolate phenomenon Hironobu Tsujiguchi (May 17, 7 p.m. at Pacific Place; May 18, 3 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown; June 1, 3:30 p.m. at Kirkland Performance Center).