TIFF 2013: Food, glorious food! Movies get cooking

TORONTO -- Two movies playing at the Toronto International Film Festival will be leaving audiences hungry once they open their theatrical runs later this year.

And, no, popcorn will not suffice.

“Labor Day,” Jason Reitman’s romantic drama, and “The Lunchbox,” a possible foreign-language Oscar submission from India, each features masterful scenes of food preparation integral to its story. They’re not foodie movies per se, like “Big Night” or “Like Water for Chocolate,” but more of a testament to the ways that meals and their preparation can bond people.

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“Labor Day” contains a scene that should fill up pie-making classes in the same way that “Ghost” goosed pottery wheel sales. It’s straight from Joyce Maynard’s novel, which Reitman adapted, and features a lonely woman (Kate Winslet) learning the proper technique to make the world’s greatest peach pie. The teacher: an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who has forced his way into the home she shares with her 13-year-old son.

“The filling is easy,” Brolin tells Winslet. That may be true, but when these two needy people squeeze and mash those juicy, ripe peaches that a next-door neighbor provided, it reawakens a sensuality in this woman that she thought had long ago died. (The son’s there, too, sensing, but not quite understanding the connection being formed.)

“It’s a really nice intimate moment that’s kind of sexy, yeah,” Brolin says.

To prepare, Brolin made a pie every day for three months, giving them to the cast and crew, teamsters, whoever was hungry.

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“It was purely out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to do it in the scene and it would look inauthentic,” Brolin says. Reitman, he says, “kept saying ‘The Greatest Pie-Making Scene in Movie History’ which was totally intimidating. I have a succession of pictures of the worst pies I made from the beginning, where I turned on the broiler instead of the oven and burned the top but the inside was still frozen. But I learned well. I started making good pies.”

Maynard, by the way, has helpfully provided convict Frank’s pie-making expertise in an excerpt from her book. (Wiser words have never been spoken: Never overhandle the dough.) And you can even watch Maynard make a pie.

Pie-making is personal for the author. She began baking when her mother became sick, making her a pie every day.

“Her mom said, ‘If I’m going to be dying, I don’t want to worry about my figure,’ ” Reitman says. “It’s one of her favorite things to do. The second time I met Joyce, I went to her house in Mill Valley and she taught me to make a pie.”

Mumbai, the setting of “The Lunchbox,” is a city where, according to filmmaker Ritesh Batra, “people like their lunchboxes.” Five thousand couriers (called dabbawallas) transport countless food containers from homes to places of work and then back again with an efficiency that is almost miraculous.

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The film’s story turns on a lunchbox that wasn’t correctly delivered. It was carefully made by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife trying to cook her way back into her inattentive husband’s heart. But the special lunchbox, five metal canisters stacked together containing elaborate dishes, rice and bread, instead winds up with a lonely insurance claims adjustor, Saajan (Irrfan Khan), closing in on an early retirement.

Even though both quickly realize the mistake, the lunchbox deliveries continue, only now containing letters sent back and forth. The results are charming, of course, but also revelatory about the ways people constrict their lives over the course of time.

“The cooking begins as something she can lose herself in,” writer-director Ritesh Batra says. “In life, we don’t really like to see the real problem, which, for her, is her marriage. We like to lose ourselves in mundane details and complicated things. So food became a way for her to do that initially.”

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By the time the relationship between Ila and Saajan deepens through the letters, she’s lovingly making him stuffed eggplant and other well-chosen dishes.

“I have a lot of people telling me they leave the movie hungry, but I don’t think it’s because of the food,” Batra says. “It’s because of the experience of food. Seeing Irrfan enjoy the food is what makes you hungry.”

Which, it should be noted, is a feat of great acting on Khan’s part, since most of the food he ate was actually raw. Uncooked food photographs better on camera.

“The color is more important than the taste ... or the actors, I’m afraid,” Khan says, chuckling.

“Labor Day” opens Dec. 25. “The Lunchbox” will probably have an academy qualifying run later this year before opening on Feb. 14.


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