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As with many large cities, Milan is a thriving financial centre that is unable to shelter the thousands of homeless citizens on its streets. Inspired by a food-themed exposition, renowned Italian chef Massimo Bottura decides to put together a soup kitchen in the city’s working-class Greco neighbourhood. Alongside many masters in the kitchen, he strives to use the expo’s leftover food waste to craft flavorful meals for the city’s struggling and disadvantaged. As Bottura explains, even something as banal as stale bread “can become gold for so many people.”

Theater of Life is a richly satisfying doc. It hooks us with its insatiable images of kitchen confections before affecting the viewer with an important message. Director Peter Svatek’s smartest choice is ensuring a relative balance of screen time between the chefs and those they serve. Bottura and a variety of food maestros from around the world provide inspiring messages about the responsibility of feeding. Nevertheless, the doc’s most probing moments come in the small vignettes with locals.

Asylum seekers and those living on the Milan streets imbue their stories with grit. While the film does tend to lionize the charismatic chefs, it does not treat the Refettorio guests as mere customers, but souls still worried about where they will sleep that evening. There is scope to Svatek’s doc: we move between stories of recent arrivals on Italian shores, such as the Nigeria-born Christiana, and those like Fawaz, a longtime resident who still struggles to find a room to avoid the blistering cold.

Svatek understands how food can become an equalizer between the classes, just as the chefs at the Milan Refettorio realize the value of having their guests sitting and sharing stories at communal tables. The interactions at these mealtimes provide insight into the conditions of these subjects. The film’s crusade for a sustainable “social gastronomy” means much more when we know the people benefitting from such terrific (and tasty) initiatives.

Co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada, this 94-minute film resembles the carefully prepared meals it features. Theater of Life packs in a lot of substance and lets certain ingredients (that we perhaps know less about) provide balance and texture. Meanwhile, for those more interested in drooling at images of food, Nicolas Venne’s camerawork artfully captures the dishes in all their glory.