Theatre of Life: the gourmet’s response to conditions of social crisis

By Owen Hsieh – 30/11/2019

” belongs to everybody, the responsibility to take care of other people that are in dire straits, but I believe that it comes natural, for a lot of cooks to want to take care of people because that’s what we do every day, you feed people.”

Visiting chef Rene Redzepi, Noma (restaurant), Copenhagen, Denmark.

” ..We dont pretend we are going to change their lives, we’ll give them 2 hours, a small moment of joy, that’s all. This is the ambition.”

Visiting chef Alain Ducasse, Du Plaza Athenee, Paris, France.

Theatre of life is a documentary film set in Milan, Italy; it chronicles the formation and running of a soup kitchen using seconds and expired foodstuffs from the 2015 world expo in Milan to give aid to the indigent. Refettorio Ambrosiano in the Greco district of Milan, is founded by chef Massimo Bottura. Using his many connections as a successful chef, he assembles team of colleagues and co thinkers to renovate to an derelict theatre, repurposing it as a modern commercial kitchen with a tastefully appointed dining hall. The scene is set, chef Bottura then makes a round of phone calls to enlist a number of successful chefs from all over the globe to volunteer to come visit and work in kitchen, highly acclaimed chefs from afar as America, Brazil and Japan come to help run this initiative.

The next series of scenes are of the visiting chefs, and their brigades, using their vision and technical skills to cook and present the waste ingredients in interesting and exciting ways. Most of the dishes are made using day old bread from the various pavilions at the expo as it is cheap and abundant. Bread becomes a core ingredient Refettorio Ambrosiano, a versatile ingredient which is used in many creative recipes, i.e. ground and used as a base for soup, as cake batter and so on.

Encompassing the whole experience of the Refettorio, the film is set in the kitchen, the dining room, and in exploring the life and times of its patrons. We see the construction of the kitchen and renovation of the building, those who pick up the ingredients, the operation of the kitchen, the personal gastronomic philosophies of the various celebrity chefs and finally the reception from the diners and its impact on their lives, with a number of in depth profiles and interviews with them.

An uplifting film as some 90 volunteers come to work in the kitchen and dining room during the production of the film, these people are genuinely concerned about the impact of poverty and food waste and wish to help. To this day Refettorio Ambrosiano is open serving meals to those in need. Chef Bottura has gone on to found the charity Food for Soul which has gone on to set up several other Refettorios in other countries.


A definite weakness of the film is the inability or unwillingness to question the social context which makes this whole venture necessary. This film declines to address the roots of the crisis of hunger, food insecurity, and the overall precariousness of the life of the diners. This is beyond the ken of the chefs and the filmmaker.

Further to this point we see a definite unwillingness on the part of our chefs to discuss wider social themes, at one point chef Bottura grows agitated at the mention of wider problems of everyday life by the diners, replying with a platitudinous sympathy before walking away.

Padre Don Giuliano Savina, who is heavily involved in the project, as his parish is next door, reinforces this as he justifies this group’s casual lighthearted approach towards their diners:

We sit around a table, and there is no curiosity about what happened to you. How you ended up in this situation. Because what counts right now is you. When people understand there is no curiosity, there is no ulterior motive, there is simply an interest in spending time, what more can you ask for?

Yet the world beyond the table makes and appearance; one diner, Fawaz Naser, after being continually frustrated by his inability to obtain crisis accomodation in chronically overloaded homeless shelters, grows impatient with the Refettorio towards the end of the film:

We need to eat. But the chefs, they speak about the tables, about Expo, about everything. But our problems, nobody speak about that. For this, I prefer to go out from there. Because i feel that I’m an object, not a person. Because the real problems are here, how to go to sleep, how to eat.”

Refettorio Ambrosiano is a admirable initiative, Theatre of Life is charming film, yet for not exploring wider social and political processes in any depth, it suffers. Theatre of Life in its generosity and effort offers us something, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It is but the beginning of a necessary, wider foray into these burning issues. For Svatek and chef Bottura, thinking with their stomach only got them so far, there is a disproportionate discussion of food, cookery and fine dining that wafts above the life and times of our downtrodden compatriots.

A better approach to the massive problem of the polarisation of society, with the relative and absolute impoverishment of the working class majority; where access to decent housing and a proper diet is routinely denied, is best encapsulated in the following quote:

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”

Excerpt from Oscar Wilde – The Soul of Man under Socialism

The film prompts the question: under what actual conditions can we solve world hunger, eradicate poverty and homelessness? How can we ‘reconstruct society’ to further this aim? In this respect the better use of stale bread to give ail will not be a panacea, it is laughable to think otherwise. Big picture thinking is required, in the final analysis, nothing short of a political revolution will help the great mass of people drawn into poverty. The demand must be advanced for the redistribution of the productive capacities of society, so that the basic necessities in the ‘theatre of life’ are available to all, providing a dignified, meaningful existence to everyone, and not just those who can afford it, society will then be immeasurably enriched and enlivened for it.

Theatre of Life
Director: Peter Svatek
93 minutes


Owen Hsieh is an independent Marxist living between Western Australia and Taiwan. An avid bibliophile and book collector with a special interest in Eastern European literature and history, currently focused on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism.

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