Food, love, identity blend in tasty, but uneven ‘Soul Kitchen’
It takes a healthy appetite for slapstick to digest Soul Kitchen. This multicultural comic confection about a foundering restaurant in a shabby neighborhood in Hamburg, Germany, draws much of its humor from such material as pratfalls at a funeral, a popped vest button that lands in the wrong place, and a character who keeps throwing out his back, forcing him to scuttle about like Quasimodo. Still, beneath the fizzy froth of physical gags simmers a more tender-hearted tale of food, love, and identity, with a protagonist teetering at the axis between them all.
Soul Kitchen was whipped up by a pair of chefs well-versed in cross-cultural issues: German-born Turkish director Fatih Akin, and his frequent collaborator, Greco-German actor Adam Bousdoukos. Both are Hamburg natives, children of immigrant parents, and together they co-wrote the script in which Bousdoukos stars as the hapless proprietor of a neighborhood greasy spoon trying to wrest some measure of success out of his business and his life.
Bousdoukos plays Zinos Kazantsakis, an earnest sad-sack eking out a living from his modest Soul Kitchen café by giving his customers what they want—mostly frozen food prepared in the deep-fat fryer. Despite the indifferent quality of the food (which Zinos cooks himself), the place is a minor local hangout, complete with a cute, elderly Greek fisherman building a boat in the garage. Still, Zinos can’t even afford health insurance to deal with his chronic bad back.
But Zinos’ blonde, German girlfriend, Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is about to leave for Shanghai on an extended business trip. Desperate to go with her—and to prove himself a success in the eyes of her snooty family—Zinos decides to class up his café and hires Shayn (Birol Unel), a professional chef recently fired from a swanker restaurant (he refused to comply when a boorish customer demanded to have his cold vichyssoise soup served hot). Shayn throws out the old chaotic menu to focus on four splendid dishes a day, “food for the soul,” he says. When Zinos’ regular customers revolt—they demand their schnitzel, pizza, burgers and fries—Shayn calls them “Culinary racists!”
Meanwhile, even more disruptive changes are afoot. Zinos’ chipper jailbird brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu, best-remembered for Run, Lola, Run), can earn a daily work furlough if he can find a job on the outside. Zinos puts him to work as a waiter, and as Illias becomes more invested in the place while romancing a sassy waitress (a wry Anna Bederke), Zinos takes steps to give Illias more legal responsibility for the café while he himself is off in Shanghai. This requires a deal made with Zinos’ old schoolchum, Neumann (Wotan Wilke Mohring), a slick, shady character involved with a local petty crime syndicate, which touches off various unfortunate, if comic repercussions.
This is director Akin’s first comedy, in a young career built mostly on punchy emotional dramas. He handles the physical business briskly enough, but mostly he stays up close and personal with Bousdoukos’ harried, slow-burning Zinos, an appealing comic character gamely assessing every situation for any possible advantage. The film’s quiet moments are often the most flavorful, as when Zinos is attempting meaningful communication with Nadine in absentia via their laptops.
Foodies may complain there’s not nearly enough sensual food-prep porn in Akin’s film. (For that, keep an eye peeled for the opening night film in the upcoming Pacific Rim Film Festival, The Chef Of South Polar.) But beneath the surface comedy of kinetic exasperation, Akin pursues a more subtle agenda. There’s a reason that Zino’s restaurant (and the movie) is called Soul Kitchen; on one hand, it’s in hommage to the American funk music that occasionally surfaces on the soundtrack. But the title also serves as metaphor. Zinos is in danger of losing his soul for awhile (especially in his Faustian bargain with Neumann), but the process by which he wins it back, and regains his selfhood and his perspective makes for a tasty conclusion to a somewhat frantic and bumpy meal.
SOUL KITCHEN ★★ 1/2
With Adam Bousdoukos, Moritz Bleibtreu, and Birol Unel. Written by Adam Bousdoukos and Fatih Akin. Directed by Fatih Akin. An IFC release. Not rated. 99 minutes. In German and Greek with English subtitles.