Review: ‘Tazzeka’ features journey of food and family

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Poster via ArtMattan Productions

“Tazzeka” is available for streaming through Feb. 28 via the Harris Theater @ Home program.

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Writer

A small boy leads a donkey through the Moroccan countryside, listing delicious-sounding meals out loud to himself as he goes. At the end of the day he returns home and falls asleep next to his brother, still muttering about expensive food.

From the opening scene, “Tazzeka,” a film by Jean-Phillipe Gaud, revolves around food and family. Portraying the journey of becoming an adult and pursuing what one loves through trials of death and heartbreak, “Tazzeka” is consistently fresh and captivating. The movie is available for streaming through Feb. 28 via the Harris Theater @ Home program, which allows streaming of independent films through the downtown Pittsburgh theater’s website.

Elias, our recipe-muttering main character, grows up in the small Moroccan village of Tazzeka — but after the opening scene, the movie skips forward about 10 years. He cooks meals at his stern-but-caring father-figure Youssef’s restaurant, but is constrained in his cooking options.

The movie gets off to a rather slow start, but holds the viewer’s attention in its details, like the atmosphere of the vibrant marketplace in the nearest town. At the marketplace, Elias tries to buy a rack of lamb to spice and serve, but Youssef reprimands him and buys a cheaper option instead.

Placated but still feeling stuck in his ability to mix the cooking skills his grandmother taught him with the French recipes he is memorizing, Elias goes to sell a chicken to a neighbor and meets Salma, an attractive young woman from Paris. While she doesn’t end up becoming as fleshed out of a character as I would’ve liked, Salma does serve as an interesting foil to Elias in several ways.

Here, the movie’s pacing begins to pick up. Salma is causing a stir in Tazzeka’s conservative older generation by wearing makeup and wanting to make calls back to Paris. Elias is skeptical of Salma until she takes an interest in his cooking, a pattern of interest that becomes a theme with Elias, and can make his character less appealing.

“Tazzeka” often feels a little slow, but only in reference to blockbuster Hollywood movies, which pack incredible amounts of action and storytelling into dense sections of dialogue. In stark contrast, “Tazzeka” delights in taking its time to show the viewer intimate parts of Elias’ life as it unfolds.

We often get shots of the countryside and Elias moving through it, but we also spend a lot of time in the early parts of the movie watching Elias experiment with new recipes in the small but brightly colored kitchen of Youssef’s restaurant — that is, whenever Elias can persuade Youssef to let him cook what he wants.

The narrative picks up a bit, however, as a series of events and revelations put Elias in a tough situation. Elias grows closer to Salma, but the conservatism of the village puts a major strain on their relationship as Elias considers whether he wants to go to Paris to become a chef.

By pure happenstance, famous French chef Julien Blanc arrives at Youssef’s restaurant and is impressed by Elias’ cooking. He asks Elias to stop by his restaurant if he’s ever in Paris. Elias is overjoyed, but concerned about the journey, Salma and leaving his grandmother.

Often, during “Tazzeka,” the plot can feel like a slow build of forces outside of Elias’ control. He simply wants to cook great food, but he’s caught between his responsibilities to his grandmother, the danger of immigrating to France and his dreams of being a cook. When he finally decides to go to Paris, however, things only get worse.

Unable to provide for himself and unwilling to make his way to Blanc’s restaurant empty-handed, Elias is forced to compete for construction jobs with other migrants. The often dismal atmosphere of his day job and his precarious position is lightened, however, by his new coworker and friend, Souleymane.

While “Tazzeka” doesn’t position itself as overtly political, in creating empathy for Elias and then showing him trapped in this position of migrant laborer wary of the police, it gives a much-needed face to the idea of immigration. The millions of people immigrating to Europe are human beings in search of a better life and deserving of compassion, and “Tazzeka” makes this argument beautifully.

While Elias can sometimes be a rather unidimensional character — he’s often only interested or interesting when food is involved — the movie shines in its portrayal of the necessity of family and friends.

Elias finds Salma in Paris, and she tells him that his grandmother is sick. While considering what to do about his grandmother, Elias begins to cook again, practicing by preparing meals for Souleymane’s extended family. After calling Youssef and learning that his grandmother has passed away, Elias decides it’s time to find Blanc, leading the movie to its conclusion.

“Tazzeka” can be a little slow at times, and Elias is, at points, a bit unidimensional in his pursuits. As previously mentioned, he’s only portrayed as interested in Salma when she talks about food. But on the other hand, it’s not a stretch that his main way of bonding with people is food. It makes complete sense that cooking for his friends and family is a way to connect with them and reinforce the movie’s main themes.

Food absolutely can be an aspect of life to bond over, and “Tazzeka” shines as a movie about the importance of culture, the necessity of family and friends and the difficult but rewarding journey of pursuing your dreams.

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