Just in time for Ramadan, Beirut has taken receipt of Fina Torres’ Woman on Top, a film about food, sex, love, and other things sensual. It’s pretty light fare, though, so light that you could probably ingest it before iftar with no problem.
The trailer for Woman on Top considerably more stupid than the movie itself makes it look a bit like an insipid feminine protection ad. In fairness it is not quite that.
Woman is narrated by the main character’s best friend Monica, an American transvestite. The tale s/he tells originates in small town Brazil which the camera depicts with the same colorful picture-postcard beauty that we’ve come to associate with other north-eye-view films of the south like Paul Weiland’s nauseating American-Italian movie, Roseanna’s Grave.
In this American representation of the distinctly un-American world of Bosanova, voodoo and village fisherman, hot food and healthy sex we meet Isabella (Penelope Cruz). A gorgeous and gifted cook, she prepares spicy grub in her husband Toninho’s restaurant while he and his guitar-strumming band croon soothingly to diners.
There are control issues. He takes credit for her work. Her motion-sickness problems make it necessary for her to be always in control. When dancing she must lead, when driving she must steer, and when being intimate she must ... well, you know.
This grates against Toninho’s machismo. When one night he goes out to get a bit from the top side Isabella catches him, and she leaves for the only place in the US that could accommodate this type of story, San Francisco.
Woman falls into a well-respected tradition of film, and literature, that uses food to tap into the metaphor of hunger and thus earthy stuff like sex, love, ambition and familial relations, the social complications arising from hunger.
It’s an international sub-genre of film and its best samples come from outside North America. Two that spring to mind are Japanese director Juzo Itami’s Tampopo which hilariously combines the quest for the perfect noodle with send-ups of cowboy and gangster motifs and Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman about an ageing Chinese chef and his struggles to cope with his daughters and declining sense of taste. Both use the consumption and masterful preparation of food as a hook on which to hang very clever stories.
The Americas have seen their share of food movies. All have been “little films,” and none have focused on mainstream Anglo-Saxon America whose culinary heritage of boiling and deep frying doesn’t seem to inspire film-makers.
The best known of the “American” food movies is Like Water for Chocolate, the adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s magic realist novel of the same title though it is admittedly magic realism-lite. It tells the story of a woman’s life and loves through her daughter’s reading of the cookbook she left behind.
One of the few food movies to strike at the heart of the North American experience is Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night, about two immigrant brothers in conflict over how to run their Italian restaurant. One stubbornly sticks to authentic Italian cuisine while the other works to find any angle that will bring in customers.
Here the sex is dysfunctional and love is kept in the kitchen. But Big Night does more than demonstrate why all restaurant food in America tastes bland. Tucci’s story drops the “cuisine as love” metaphor into the commercial melting pot of the US to show us why the American dream may be a thing of vision, but not taste.
Food has been put to such exceptionally good use in the cinema that Torres’ assumed a daunting task with Woman on Top. Presumably though, she is less concerned with contributing to a genre than with making an entertaining movie.
In doing so she has grazed widely, borrowing some of recent cinema’s most popular surrealistic touches. Thus Latin American magic realism is made all the more palatable by music, which is foregrounded in much the same manner as in the films of Emir Kusturika (Underground for one, Black Cat, White Cat for another).
Of course, Torres will benefit from the fact that most people watching her movie will have no knowledge of any of these titles mentioned above.
Audiences will likely come away regarding Woman on Top as a fun, quirky, and original little movie. It is far from original, and it could only be seen as quirky in the context of mainstream American cinema.
If it’s fun, that has more to do with some half-decent if uneven writing, a competent supporting cast, and of course its luminous centerpiece, Spanish actor Penelope Cruz.
One of the film’s redeeming characteristics is that it recognizes how heavily it relies upon Cruz’s presence on screen. “The camera loves her,” remarks a bug-eyed television executive a comment that likely went through the minds of the makers of this film as they coaxed Cruz into the role.
Insofar as Woman addresses the bland down side of middle America, or issue of the US media’s ham-fisted efforts to capture human beauty and magic, it does have something to say. But its unremitting Cruz-centered beauty worship quickly becomes tiresome.
Though Woman does occasionally poke fun at itself the narrator is a transvestite after all at the end of the day it’s still an ad for conventional US-defined standards of beauty albeit with a spicier recipe.