A young boy leads a donkey through the Moroccan countryside, listing delicious-sounding meals out loud. At the end of the day, he returns home and falls asleep next to his brother, who is still mumbling about expensive food.
In the opening scene, “Tazzeka”, a film by Jean-Phillipe Gaud, is about food and family. “Tazzeka” shows the journey of growing up and following what one loves through trials of death and heartbreak. It’s fresh and fascinating throughout. The film can be streamed through the website until February 28th Harris Theater @ Home Program that allows independent films to be streamed through the downtown Pittsburgh theater’s website.
Elias, our main character muttering a recipe, grows up in the small Moroccan village of Tazzeka – but after the opening scene the film jumps forward about 10 years. He cooks meals in the restaurant of his strict but caring father figure Youssef, but is limited in his cooking options.
The film starts rather slowly, but draws the viewer’s attention in its details, such as the atmosphere of the pulsating market square in the next town. In the market, Elias tries to buy a rack of lamb to season and serve, but Youssef rebukes him and buys a cheaper option instead.
Elias is reassured but still feels trapped in his ability to mix the cooking skills his grandmother taught him with the French recipes he is memorizing. He sells a chicken to a neighbor and meets Salma, an attractive young woman from Paris. While she doesn’t come out of a character in the way I would have liked, Salma Elias serves as an interesting slide in several ways.
This is where the pace of the film begins to increase. Salma is causing a stir in Tazzeka’s conservative older generation by wearing makeup and wanting to call back to Paris. Elias is skeptical of Salma until she becomes interested in his cuisine, a pattern of interest that becomes an issue with Elias and can make his character less attractive.
“Tazzeka” often feels a bit slow, but only when it comes to blockbuster Hollywood films that pack an incredible amount of action and storytelling into dense sections of dialogue. In stark contrast to this, “Tazzeka” likes to take the time to show the viewer intimate parts of Elias’ life as it unfolds.
We often get footage of the landscape and Elias moving through the landscape, but we also spend a lot of time in the early parts of the movie watching Elias experimenting with new recipes in the small but colorful kitchen of Youssef’s restaurant – that means whenever Elias can persuade Youssef to let him cook whatever he wants.
The narrative picks up a bit, however, as a series of events and revelations put Elijah in a difficult position. Elias gets closer to Salma, but the village’s conservatism weighs heavily on their relationship as Elias considers going to Paris to become a chef.
The famous French chef Julien Blanc happens to arrive at Youssef’s restaurant and is impressed with Elias’ cuisine. He asks Elias to stop by his restaurant if he’s ever in Paris. Elias is overjoyed but concerned about the trip, Salma and leaving his grandmother.
During “Tazzeka,” the plot can often feel like a slow build-up of forces that are beyond Elias’ control. He just wants to cook good food, but he’s caught between his responsibilities to his grandmother, the threat of immigrating to France, and his dreams of being a chef. However, when he finally decides to go to Paris, it only gets worse.
Elias cannot take care of himself and is unwilling to go to Blanc’s restaurant empty-handed. He is forced to apply for construction jobs with other migrants. However, the often gloomy atmosphere of his day-to-day job and his precarious situation is made easier by his new colleague and friend Souleymane.
While “Tazzeka” does not position itself as overtly political by creating empathy for Elias and then showing him in this position of a migrant worker who is suspicious of the police, it gives the idea of immigration a much-needed face. The millions of people who immigrate to Europe are people looking for a better life and deserve compassion, and “Tazzeka” makes that argument wonderful.
While Elias can be a rather one-dimensional character at times – he’s often only interested or interesting when it comes to food – the film shines in its portrayal of the need for family and friends.
Elias finds Salma in Paris and she tells him that his grandmother is sick. While Elias ponders what to do with his grandmother, he starts cooking again and practices, preparing meals for Souleymane’s extended family. After Elias Youssef calls and learns that his grandmother has passed away, he decides to find Blanc and leads the film to its conclusion.
“Tazzeka” can be a little slow at times, and Elias is a little one-dimensional in his endeavors in some places. As mentioned earlier, the only time he is portrayed as interested in Salma is when she talks about food. On the other hand, it’s not a problem that his main method of connecting with people is through food. It makes perfect sense that cooking is a way for his friends and family to connect with them and reinforce the main themes of the film.
Eating can absolutely be an aspect of life to ignore and “Tazzeka” shines as a film about the importance of culture, the need for family and friends, and the difficult but rewarding journey to make your dreams come true.