A Little Food for the Soul

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This much is true: In the 1950s, scientists from Sweden's Home Research Institute mapped the movements of housewives in their kitchens with the aim of redesigning their work space to be more efficient.

This much is untrue: the scientists extended their studies to Norwegian bachelor farmers, who basically used their kitchens to make endless cups of coffee.

This much is wonderful: Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer's Kitchen Stories, in which he imagines an observer named Folke (Tomas Norstrom) perched in a sort of tennis umpire's chair, watching an old man named Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) doing his modest culinary chores. They're not allowed to talk; it would ruin the experiment's purity. But, of course, they do, these two lonesome men leading minimalist lives in the snow-shrouded countryside.

The most explosive action in the film — its equivalent of a car chase — comes when Folke moves a salt cellar and Isak has trouble finding it. Yet Hamer reveals a surprising richness in these lives. Isak's beloved workhorse is dying, and his neighbor, his only friend, grows increasingly jealous of Folke's presence. As for Folke, living in a cramped trailer parked outside, wearing a suit and tie in his observer's chair, his life is constrained. As far as we know, his only human contact is an aunt who sends him food parcels.

But human need, unsentimentally stated (and lubricated by alcohol), will out. They talk, they shyly share, they confront mortality. Most of all, they assert their humanity, which turns out to be far larger than we (or perhaps they) ever imagined it might be.

And Hamer reveals himself to be the most delicate of ironists, underplaying a sweet and most unusual love story. In Kitchen Stories a doctor, examining a patient, serenely smokes a cigarette with no comment made about the matter. There are dozens of similar moments in the film, and what a pleasure it is not to be hectored by a director as we laugh our own little laughs, watching a profound story unfold.