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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.

Sing Like an American Idol, Women's Edition
Everything You Need to Sing the Hits!

(Discounted Paperback (with CD) from Amazon)
. "The Perfect Cappuccino"

In a variation on the old saying about like minds, let me say that it's equally true about like tastes. The common denominator in this case isn't just coffee, it's Italy, and the powerful force it exerts with its history with the coffee bean. The country is also a leader in design, in moviemaking, in fashion, olive oil and wine! There is a pervading atmosphere of intense politics and warm welcomes and it is second to none in history and monuments.

In terms of how this documentary treats this extraordinary country in terms of tastebud arousal, let me explore the effect it has had on three people with like tastes.

I'll start with mine. I was on location, based in Rome, when the joy of being surrounded by coffee bars gave me a whole new perspective on civility. Before my sojourn there, I had a hazy concept of Italian coffee (though a better one of Italian wines). I never felt so much at home away from my Hollywood digs; I was in a country that had its priorities straight.

The pervasiveness and convenience of gourmet level coffee bars wasn't evident only because a typical street in the heart of the big city might have three or four of them, but that the best and most professional coffee machines, with savvy baristas to go with them, were in gas stations, railroad stations, and in cantinas everywhere. There are more coffee bars than monuments! Someone was making sure that no one ever needed to do without. In a word, Italy, and Rome in particular, is coffee heaven.

After three months of steady infusion of my elixir, my return home produced a culture shock I'd never expected. It was a good thing that I carried a home grinder and espresso machine (Gaggias) with me on the plane. But, I still pined for the ubiquitous coffee bar, like the one I had to cross the Imperial Forum in order to reach from my hotel. Why, I wondered, couldn't the big cities of America be canvassed by places that knew how coffee should be brewed? Would Americans ever learn from the Italians and develop the taste; would an entrepreuneur ever exploit the dormant gold mine in the potential of a new national habit?

Cut. Jump a couple of decades. A fellow by the name of Howard Schultz picked up the signal of my thoughts and started Starbucks. Or... had a reaction to Italy exactly like mine (which he did, according to an interview). Would that I had his entrepreneurial know-how, but, then, I was too busy making movies. But, no matter. The franchised chain of coffee bars was established in the good old U.S. of A. In the meanwhile, I bought a home roaster, and then a better one, and then a better espresso machine.

So, you can imagine my interest when Amy Ferraris, the third person of my narrative, put out the word that she not only journeyed the same trails that I and Howard Schultz had so many years before, but that she had a camera and a grant to record her quest for the so-called "perfect" cappuccino. This I had to see.

Narrating her journey, she takes us through the coffee culture of Italy in the framework of the, by now, 800-pound retail gorilla of the beverage back in the States. She charmingly conducts an investigatory comparison, holding up the Italian cup of roasted bean extraction topped with the creamy froth of steamed milk as her ideal. I daresay that Ms. Ferraris, Mr. Schultz and I would have no trouble putting a cup such as that in the hands of Ms. Liberty on Ellis Island while singing her praises.

To enrich her thesis she interviews baristas from Rome to Tulsa, Oklahoma with educational closeups of the beautiful brown liquid emerging from their machines' portafilters. She furthers her study by introducing us to other professionals, the roasters, coffee bar owners, an Italian coffeemaker historian or two and a good cross section of the craft who openly share their techniques and philosophies of what they consider perfection.

It's clear that these practitioners of the art are driven, devoted and obsessive about what they contribute to society. Perfectionist nuts to a person, the satisfaction is in the purity and consistency of their product, as well as the clienteles they build and hold faithful. And, as many an artist asked to share their approach to their work, they expound on the fine points of their expertise for Ferraris's camera and the viewer's benefit.

Occupying the most footage is heroic Brian, the owner of that Tulsa coffeeshop who provides the drama of the piece by relating his lawsuit with Starbucks over his choice of store titles, the "Doubleshot" which the chain considers trademarked. See what results when, during Ferraris's third visit, they ask him to change the name of his store.

While it's true that Starbucks has taken the beverage into areas the Italians never dreamed of, adapting it to the commercial marketplace and the tastes of its patrons, Ferraris expresses her thesis by pointing out that the perfect cappuccino is not to be found there. She makes unarguable the point that catering to a less demanding retail crowd is not how perfection is achieved. But in giving us a picture of its widespread presence, there is also the subtext that for most people who tread these territories, convenience is an abiding factor in the choices they make.

Sure, their product is inferior to that of the brave baristas running their independent specialty shops and competing for our coffee dollars by sheer product quality. That message is clear, and she does a great service by writing, directing and producing this film. Any true coffee lover may well wish for her its wide distribution so that more patrons will discover what a certain three people did. But, for a fuller scope of the coffee phenomenon, one might well wish that she'd included something on the home brewing industry or showed some awareness of coffee forums on the web. Coffee bar owners aren't the only ones passionate about the brew and you exclude home roaster/brewers from consideration at your and your film's peril.

My idea of a perfect cappuccino might look something like this. Note that it's partly consumed.
Let me offer a specific reason: One might well prefer a cappuccino with a smaller proportion of steamed milk to a mix that the documentarian proclaims perfect. In Rome, I'd more often go for a crema-rich espresso than the diluted-by-froth style of cappuccino. There's a difference and, even, a compromise between them. At Starbuck's, it's a macchiato--if the barista on duty knows how to make one.

Which is why there are menus, and so many restaurants. You can't argue taste. And, while I truly admire Ferraris's concentration on a subject that is personally meaningful, her film, very, very educational as it is, recommendable as it is, doesn't go far enough. Nor does it cast a spell of forgetfulness about an overriding truth: the minute you start talking about "perfect," you're in a spot of trouble.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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The perfect pour.
As much a part of the culture as the perfect extraction.

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