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Politiki kouzina (A Touch of Spice)

(2004) ** 1/2 Unrated
103 min. Menemsha Films. Director: Tassos Boulmetis. Cast: Georges Corraface (II), Ierkolis Michailides, Renia Louizidou, Stelios Mainas (II), Basak Koklukaya.

The Greek-Turkish co-production A Touch of Spice has a lot on its plate. In my neck of the woods, Greece's official selection for the 2005 Best Foreign Language Oscar is getting a Thanksgiving-week opening, appropriate for this comedy of (table) manners crossed with romanticized drama. Tassos Boulmetis' largely autobiographical film overlaps the themes of story, history, and food, all cultural nourishments that contribute to the formation of an adult individual.

At the film's outset, Boulmetis introduces us to middle-aged Athenian astrophysics professor Fanis (Georges Corraface). Caught off-guard by the news his beloved grandpa is on the way for a long-promised visit, Fanis hastily prepares to host a feast. But news of his grandfather's ill health sends Fanis on a nostalgia trip that triples as a a three-course meal and a brief history of Greek-Turkish relations.

For "The Appetizers," Boulmetis unexpectedly flashes back to 1959 Constantinople, where Grandpa Vassilis (Tassos Bandis) holds court in his general store. His speciality is dishing out a combination of spice and advice--he imparts the import of food. Beside its pleasurable taste, spice can send coded messages between lovers or reflect the state of affairs between countries.

After all, wars have been fought over spice, across borders and in homes ("Relationships without arguments are like weddings without music," Grandpa explains). Spice also parallels the order of the galaxy, an idea instilled in the scientifically curious boy by his grandfather. Meanwhile, little Fanis (Markos Osse) learns love lessons from his first and enduring love Saime. When tensions rear up, Fanis and his father—a Greek citizen—are forcibly deported, while Turkish-born Grandpa Vassilis stays behind.

Five years later, "The Main Course" finds Fanis repeatedly disappointed by empty promises of a visit by Grandpa Vassilis and Saime. Fanis' cookings skills develop, but draw cultural concern. Everyone loves his cooking, but a boy chef? The boy ages into young adulthood as he struggles to assimilate the lessons of his grandfather and find a rewarding life path.

"The Desserts" returns to the concerns of middle-aged Fanis, as he makes his way home to Istanbul and closure with ailing Grandpa Vassilis and long-lost love Saime (Basak Kökl├╝kaya). Boulmetis develops an insistent metaphor for those who have lived through the tensions of Greece and Turkey. In the end, can one "go home again"?

Boulmetis stuffs his tale with the meanings of food, its arcane, secretive, magical knowledge: cultural traditions, romantic advice, and political sooth ("If a diplomat smells of garlic, trouble is stirring"). These invisible presences can be charming narrative devices, and the director puts a few tasteful special effects to poetic use.

The cumulative effect, however, is more than precious and less than subtle, and the characters—especially and crucially Fanis—are too bland. On the other hand, any movie with a running gag about an elderly aunt who loses, regains, then loses her Parkinson's again is probably a tad overcooked.

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