Long the question after a night at the movies, I asked Meg, “Well, what did you think?” We talked for a while, back and forth, and eventually I said that the film was a surprising story of vocation, of what do we do and why do we do it.
For every one of us, that is complex—because we are complex. There is so much to think about, so much to account for, so much to consider.
What I liked in “The Hundred Foot Journey” is that the story reflects that complexity. Work matters, but it is not everything. Family matters, but it is not everything. Tradition matters, but it is not everything.
Set in the beautiful countryside of France—a very pretty village in a very pretty valley by a very pretty river –it is the story of an Indian family which left their homeland under duress, looking for a new place to call home. After trying England, but finding it too wet, they settle in a quaint little town that offers the possibility of beginning again.
The main character is the son who has an unusual gift of imagination and instinct that he brings into being as a chef. As a boy his mother saw this in him, and allowed him to see as she saw, to smell as she smelled, to taste as she tasted. As a young man he takes his place in the family’s restaurant, reclaiming the richness and pleasure of Indian cuisine for his French customers, but also taking the very best French food and making it better with tasty, spicy Indian accents, winning him attention from people near and far.
As his ability grows, as his fame broadens, he is invited to leave the village and move to Paris where he can compete at the highest levels, “haute cuisine” as they say in France. He flourishes in his labor, but languishes in his life.
But it is here that the story is so very good. The young man wrestles with what he is doing, and why he is doing it; in a word, he wrestles with the meaning of his vocation. I won’t ruin say more here, but even to see a story where the complexity of life is honored, and the importance of work is understood, that is rare. The best stories are the truest stories, the ones where we recognize ourselves, glorious ruins that we are, full of hope and honor, but also prone to self-deception and self-destruction. This film remembers that.
Because vocation is a rich and complex word, and is never the same word as occupation, we are always more than our work, though our work matters. The film celebrates work, but never romanticizes it. We create, but we sweat. We do our best, but still disappoint. Sometimes, sometimes, heaven meets earth in and through our work, and it becomes almost sacramental– and then sometimes we curse the very work of work. We are our best and our worst at work.
My own first question about a film is always this: did you tell a good story? I hate bad stories, cheap stories, ones which makes us groan for all sorts of reasons. But when the credits rolled for “The Hundred Foot Journey.” I watched them all the through to the end, wanting to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything. Unlike so often, when the end of a film means a sigh of some sort, this time I was sure that I had seen a good movie… because it was a good story… because it told the truth about what we do and why we do it.