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Theater of Life: Chefs cook a feast out of food waste in documentary

Food documentary Theater of Life takes pains to study the persistence and perserverance of the disenfranchised while celebrating gastronomic talent.

3 out of 4 stars

Theater of Life
Written by
Peter Svatek
Directed by
Peter Svatek

The rallying cries of Michael Pollan (eat food, not too much, and mostly plants), Morgan Spurlock (don't trust fast food) and Jamie Oliver (reacquaint yourself with your stove) governed the early days of our collective foodie enlightenment. The next step may belong to Massimo Bottura – philosophically, at least.

The famed Italian chef (and holder of this year's prestigious San Pellegrino world's best restaurant title for his Modena restaurant, Osteria Francescana) is the de-facto star of Theater of Life, the new documentary from Canadian director Peter Svatek that focuses on the chef's 2015 Expo Milano soup kitchen, where the world's biggest culinary masterminds were invited to cook meals from discarded food, for the poor and homeless.

Fortunately, Theater of Life is a documentary about food waste and poverty the same way the popular Netflix series Chef's Table is about small business: Unlike the rash of more ideologically driven food docs such as Food, Inc. or Fed Up, there are no graphed representations of how much we throw out juxtaposed over how many people are without access to good meals. Svatek shows rather than tells, intertwining the narratives of Bottura's roster of gastronomic talent (Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, Alain Ducasse, Canadian chef Jeremy Charles) with those of whom the program was set up to benefit.

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Theater of Life will do best with audiences already familiar with Bottura (and Adria, and Redzepi, and Ducasse …) because it doesn't go to any real lengths to introduce its key players. On the one hand, that's appreciated – it's in keeping with the film's overall spirit of egalitarianism: the household-ish names doing the cooking aren't framed as any more important than the mouths they feed. On the other hand, it doesn't make clear why Bottura's temporary soup kitchen was in any way remarkable to anyone who isn't at least slightly in awe by the calibre of talent he managed to draw there.

Remarkable, though, is that despite any impulses Svatek may have had to lionize Bottura for his work, Theater of Life takes greater pains to study the persistence and perseverance of the disenfranchised than to celebrate celebrities for making creative dishes out of stale bread (if this sounds like a metaphor, it's not: Each chef's meal used old bread as a base).

"We don't pretend we're going to change their lives," Bottura says in one frame; in another, a diner at the Expo soup kitchen says that his presence there feels more ornamental than impactful. Juxtaposed against these high-powered, well-meaning chefs creating four-star dishes for the homeless is the idea that it's just theatre; that, six months from now, the chefs will all be back in their fully booked dining rooms cooking for well-heeled patrons, while the homeless will remain homeless – albeit with the memory of some artfully repurposed bread.

Svatek tacks Theater of Life's only frank conversation about food waste in a short montage near the end, with five or six chefs discussing the importance of mitigating food waste, though in no substantial way (Mario Batali, for instance, shows up for 30 seconds of on-screen platitudes).

It's right at the end of the film, though, where he lets Bottura inject a little bit of philosophy, in a gentle call for the chefs of the world to unite ethics and aesthetics. It's a good take-home, particularly now, when gastronomic cachet and foodie cred are universal (maybe a little pedestrian) pursuits.

If most of us are paying attention to our food (one way or another) those actually making the stuff ought to start paying a different kind of attention, as well – if only for the length of a world's fair.

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