Devour! is our bucket list film festival. When we cover a big film festival like TIFF, we often go hungry, meals replaced by the crumbly remains of a granola bar fishes out of the bottom of my tote. So imagine our delight when we heard about Devour!, a festival that pairs food and film. As lovers of both, we have resolved to one day travel to beautiful Wolfville, Nova Scotia to partake in what I’m sure can’t help but be a joyous event. However, since that wasn’t in the cards this year, the lovely people of the Devour! film festival have provided us with a virtual hybrid, so that for the first time ever, those of us even outside of Nova Scotia can indulge in a unique festival with strong programming.
Feast of the Seven Fishes is about a big Italian family preparing – guess what – a traditional Feast of Seven Fishes. It’s Christmas Eve and the whole family gathers to participate and partake. This year’s a little special because young Tony (Skyler Gisondo) is bringing a date – a non-Italian date.
Almost every culture celebrates holidays with food and feasts (or, conversely, with a lack of them). Family recipes are passed down from generation to generation to preserve culture and tradition. I remember being in my grandmother’s kitchen, learning how to make her perfect, flaky pie crust, used for any number of recipes including French-Canadian recipes for tourtière and straight-up sugar pie (incidentally, my grandmother also gave out sucre à la Crème for Halloween, a maple-flavoured, crumbly fudge). At Christmas a Bûche de Noël would always be the centrepiece of our table, even if everyone preferred my grandmother’s flawless apple pie for dessert. And even my mother, an avowed non-baker, would whip up gateau chomeur, a humble dessert, once in a while, and for dinner, a pâté chinois that still haunts me.
Food is an opportunity to gather. In Tony’s family, it is largely the men who prepare fish on Christmas Eve. They start days in advance, soaking and resoaking the fish though inevitably someone will always complain that it wasn’t soaked enough. Food is an excuse to reminisce. Mom usually made it best, and her way is still the only way. Food is a tool for teaching each other about what we value and what we believe. Some observe special diets, or stay away from meat on Fridays. Some people eat ham on Christmas instead of turkey, others roast suckling pig or goose. And food says something about us, about our family. On the holidays, I usually bring dessert, because I like to make things as pretty as they are delicious. One of my sisters brings an appetizer, because we like to snack. And another brings the cheese plate, because she can’t cook and we all know it.
Tony’s dad is busy working in the butcher shop, but his uncle Carmine (Ray Abruzzo) and uncle Frankie (Joe Pantoliano) introduce the new non-Italian girlfriend Beth (Madison Iseman) to their culture and their family by telling her all the stories of past Christmas Eves. No family member is spared embarrassment when the uncles are drinking and reminiscing. When finally it’s time to eat, the whole family gathers around a table groaning with food and stretched to its limit and possibly even extended with other tables and mismatched chairs to accommodate one and all. There is not a grandmother on earth who’s most fervent wish isn’t to have her whole family gathered around a single table. Food is passed, wine is shared, conversation shouted across the table. Perhaps a toast is made, an absent loved one remembered, a prayer given, or a moment of gratitude observed. Several generations of family members young and old sit elbow to elbow, the lefties always throwing a wrench into things.
Tony’s family has specific customs and unique recipes, but changes are you’ll find something to relate to in a film like this, a film about family and holidays and time spent together. Writer-director Robert Tinnell shares a piece of himself with this film, but he also uses food as a universal symbol for how and why and when we gather. Tinnel draws uniformly wonderful performances out of a stacked cast including Paul Ben-Victor and Lynn Cohen. The film does indeed feel like a boisterous family gathering, and we feel welcome at their table. There’s an air of bonhomie and contagious conviviality. But what makes it special is that it captures the spirit in such a real and recognizable way. They aren’t your family, but they could be.