Of all the fine cuisine options the world provides, nothing seems quite as ubiquitously unique as the steak dinner. The preparation of this culinary staple can range greatly from locale to locale, but the results are essentially the same: high quality beef from a knowledgeable butcher, prepared by an acclaimed chef and producing a savory and mouth-watering experience. If you are a meat-eater.
And a meat-eater you better be if you venture into the cinema for a taste of Steak (R)evolution, a two-hour documentary exploring this signature dish in a dozen different cultures and locales, because that dish is steak and only steak. When ranchers, butchers and cooks speak of vegetables, they don’t talk about them as garnishes or compliments, but strictly as feed that impart flavors on a cow’s meat.
The revolution and evolution in question here revolves primarily around the cattle used and the care involved to produce high quality steaks. To uncover this revolution, director Franck Ribière globetrots — Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, Spain and the U.S. — in search of higher quality and better products. But this venture limits Ribière to only the boutique producers and higher end butchers. In one instance, Ribière visits a ranch in South America where bulls are raised and kept for 15 years. In Japan, a rancher massages his cattle with sake. Another plays Mozart for his beautiful bovine. And all of them are set in idyllic and picturesque locales with nary a factory in sight.
Ribière interviews dozens of ranchers, butchers, cooks, restaurant owners and food critics and writers about how steak can taste better. The author of Steak: One Man’s Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef, Mark Schatzker, recounts personally raising a cow for the purpose of slaughter and consumption. There is a tinge of regret in Schatzker’s voice while speaking about the death of the animal — Schatzker does brings up a valid point when he explains that the animal received an instantaneous and painless death from the slaughterhouse, a luxury not afforded in the wild — but that notion of compassion is complicated when Schatzker describes consuming her flesh. Schatzker uses “her” in reference to the taste and quality and explains to Ribière that, “she’s gone.” Except for her hide, which, as Schatzker tells Ribière, “You’re standing on.”
There is a great deal of information in Steak (R)evolution, but Ribière struggles to present it in a compelling way. When Ribière steps out-of-the-way and lets his subjects speak, or cook, then his thesis comes across loud and clear, as it does in the scene with Schatzker. But the typical talking-heads documentary is not what Ribière is interested in, and he incorporates the shaggy bits of documentary — subjects entering the frame and not hitting their mark, voice overs asking where the movie can be seen, subjects flubbing lines, the light aperture constantly correcting while the camera pans — to remind the audience that they are watching a construct. It isn’t necessary, and neither are the fast/slow motion inserts that Ribière wedges into the visual aesthetic.
Yet, that amateurish aspect of Steak (R)evolution is not what ultimately distracts from the movie’s focus. Oddly enough, the most captivating aspect of Steak (R)evolution is not the talking heads, the cooking demonstrations or the information, but the cows themselves. These docile and majestic beasts steal the show, and Ribière quietly and beautifully documenting them grazing, mooing, trotting and being. Which begs the question, if the most compelling aspect of a two-hour documentary about preparing and eating meat, is the animal providing the meat, should we be eating them in the first place? It’s not a question Ribière or any of the subjects in the movie ask, but it’s probably one that will rattle around audience’s minds as they exit the theater.