'Soul': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
A two-for-one special.

Spanish directors Jose Antonio Blanco and Angel Parra document two of the world’s greatest chefs, in this opening night film from Berlin’s Culinary Cinema section.

“All great food is soul food” could be the logline for this polished foodie flick from directors Jose Antonio Blanco and Angel Parra, which documents two world-famous chefs from the East and West to show how, deep down, they have a lot in common.

Taking us inside the kitchen of Eneko Atxa’s three-Michelin-star restaurant Azurmendi in northeastern Spain, and to the legendary Tokyo sushi joint run by 91-year-old Jiro Ono (already the subject of 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi), the simply titled Soul does not break any new ground in the culinary genre and sometimes feels closer to a lavish electronic press kit than to a real documentary. But it does manage to capture the deep traditions that have made Basque and Japanese cuisines two of the most coveted in the world, revealing how recipes and techniques that have been handed down for generations are still the best way to build a perfect meal. 

39-year-old Atxa is one of several chefs – along with elBulli’s Ferran Adria and Lasarte’s Martin Berasategui, both featured in the movie – who have revived Spanish and Basque cooking over the past few decades, making their restaurants a must for any self-respecting food freak. Combining local products with hyper-modern methods (the kitchen at Azurmendi looks more like a laboratory than a place to slice up onions), they are on the cutting edge of contemporary cuisine, even if Axta sees his metier as having more to do with being an artisan than a veritable artist.

Jiro also comes from a longstanding tradition of local cooking, and he explains how sushi dates back at least 200-300 years to the Edo period, though its quality has improved with refrigeration and other modern developments. The man himself has been working since the age of eight, and after 80-plus years as a sushi chef is still perfecting his recipes, trying to find the “personality and power” needed to make great food.

Compared to the expansive high-tech setup at Azurmendi, Jiro and his son – now in his 50s and finally picking up his dad’s skills – do everything by hand in a closet-sized kitchen, taking their precious time for each item and serving only ten customers at once. Yet based on testimony from anyone who’s eaten there (and that includes President Obama), size hardly matters and slow-and-steady definitely wins the race.

The filmmakers cut between Spain and Japan, with a foray into Paris to speak with the head of Michelin, attempting to underline parallels between the two brands of cooking, each of which is heavily dependent on a “terroir” where fresh seafood abounds (we make an extended visit to the Tokyo Fish Market at one point) and where family secrets mean more than cookbooks. Sometimes the comparisons seem stretched – aren’t all regional cuisines based on similar factors? – though we soon learn how certain Spanish chefs are now famous enough to open up restaurants in Japan, while Japanese chefs are seen making a pilgrimage to Spain.

Offering up lots of slick close-ups and enough drone shots to make you dizzy, Blanco and Parra have a flashy way of presenting their material that doesn’t always serve it well. Sometimes it feels like they’re shooting ads for Azurmendi and Sukiyabashi Jiro rather than capturing the realities inside, and such methods, along with an overdone soundtrack, wind up sucking some of the soul out of Soul. But in the end, they’ve done enough research and covered enough ground to provide a decent tasting menu for two great chefs, urging us – practically obliging us – to one day try the real thing. 

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Culinary Cinema)
Production company: Festimania Pictures, Nasa Producciones
Cast: Eneko Atxa, Jiro Ono
Directors: Jose Antonio Blanco, Angel Parra
Producers: Pedro Peira, Javier Pruano
Director of photography: Sergio de Una
Editor: Tegaday Jimenez
Composer: Tomas San Miguel
Sales: Festimania Pictures

In Spanish, Japanese, French, English
75 minutes