Everything’s about sex, I once told a class of literature students, only half-joking, as we dove into another novel with knotty passages full of portentous, mystifying symbolism. Except, I added, sex itself, which is about anything but: death, impermanence, loss.

I was thinking about that bit of lit-crit shorthand when I took in a three-and-a-half-hour preview of this week’s Slow Food on Film Festival, which runs this weekend at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. The more food movies are about food—which is to say, the more they linger on all those innumerable sensory details of kitchen and table, and on the stories behind the dishes—the more they’re really about something else: the bonds and bondage of family (Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman), the elusive quest for a kind of spiritual perfection (Babette’s Feast, Mostly Martha), desire and loss (Like Water for Chocolate).

The slow-food movement was born in Italy in 1986, the creation of Carlo Petrini, a lefty journalist who saw the opening of a McDonald’s on the Spanish Steps in Rome as an unwarranted attack on an entire way of life. In short order, he published a manifesto, arguing that fast food was immoral, that it represented a rejection of the mores that Italian society had been founded upon: eating as a social occasion, the transmission of values across the dinner table, cooking as a process that’s handed down from one generation to the next. The movement has since spread throughout the Western world (there’s even a D.C. chapter of Slow Food USA) and has spawned a wealth of culinary activism—grass-roots efforts to sustain the growth of regional foods and small producers in an age of corporate global expansionism, among others.

But anyone bracing for a showcase for do-gooder politics and overearnest guilt-tripping can rest easy. A good food movie is a difficult enough thing to pull off without the added burden of having to champion a movement. The challenge inherent in the form (and one of the reasons, I think, you don’t see very many movies about food) is that without that essential, anchoring sensuality, it matters little, really, how provocative or insightful a filmmaker might be—you’re going to come away disappointed. I can almost hear myself talking to my classes again: From the specific comes the universal.

The good news for gastronomes is that, of the dozen shorts I saw—there are 17 in all—the specific is on ample, sometimes glorious, display at the festival. The nine-minute, black-and-white A Love Supreme contains no characters and no dialogue, but it registers beautifully the sounds of great cooking (the sizzle of oil, the rhythmic chopchopchop of a knife slicing through onions) and offers a simple, compelling narrative: the laborious making of samosas, from start to finish. The film’s fluidity is impressive, capturing director Nilesh Patel’s mother’s hands—hennaed, quick, and deft—as she moves from the grinding and toasting of spices for the filling to the origami-like folding of dough. I defy anyone who watches it not to crave one of these deep-fried puffs, which is another of the baseline measures of a good food movie: how hungry it makes you.

Antonello Carboni’s Voci Della Montana, also wordless, follows the progress of cheese-making from the milking of the goats to the slow, ritualistic shaping of the fresh curds into the final product. The naturalism of the storytelling can be frustrating (you watch, in vain, for something to go wrong), but the sense of anticipation that builds is, as much as anything else, the point. Great food constitutes a celebration of the bounties of nature, but those bounties don’t count for much without the benefit of painstaking craftsmanship to bring them to fruition.

Of course, Slow Food on Film’s homages to craft are usually more interesting for what they say about food than for what they say as film. But this is largely a function of the short form. Those looking for the layered, thematic richness of Babette’s Feast or Like Water for Chocolate in a festival of shorts might want to temper their expectations. How, after all, do you convey a wealth of sensual, accumulating detail and at the same time construct a coherent, plotted, nuanced story in all of 11 minutes? Still, a handful of films make the attempt. In Francesco Barbieri and Andrea Canepari’s Crapa Pansa, family, food, and the old ways all mingle in a bit of mordant tragicomedy: The family patriarch has died, suddenly, on Christmas Day. Unwilling to spoil the grand meal that is to be served that afternoon, his widow concocts a fib, telling the assembled that she must care for Grandpa, who is not feeling well. While the guests moan with gluttonous pleasure in the riotous dining room, the widow slurps down one spoonful after another from a bowl of lovingly prepared ravioli in bed, the dead man right there beside her. Rarely has the term “comfort food” been more fitting.

Pascal Lahmani’s De la Tête aux Pieds, another tragicomedy, is the most fully realized of the festival shorts. What looks, initially, to be a knowing, funny slice of kitchen life, capturing the neurotic and blinding perfectionism of a bunch of chefs vying for a culinary prize, turns out to be something more. The contest takes place in Nazi-occupied Calais, in 1943, and so, in the otherwise traditionally male bastion of the professional kitchen, the competing chefs are all women. As the contest wears on, and as bombs rattle the kitchen, the gas-mask-clad women come unglued. One is gripped by the spirit of her dead husband, also a chef; another, lapsing into desperation, turns from sniping at her colleagues to poison the stew that will be fed to the brown-uniformed soldiers judging the competition. A celebration of both the rigors of haute cuisine and the necessity of political resistance, it’s as tidy and eloquent a summation of the French national character as you’re likely to find.

Easy as Pie, the story of rival sisters (one thick, one thin) in a county pie-making contest, belongs, at least thematically, with such family-centered films as Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman. But Jon Berkowitz’s short ignores the cardinal rule of great food movies: It stints on the buildup of detail, conveying the process of baking in a rush of images in order to get to the action more quickly. Some action: Thin sis seduces the judge of the contest; fat sis retaliates by throwing her second-place pie. The story is slick and sentimental, a jarring bit of Hollywood glitz in a festival dominated by rough-hewn independents and sensitively drawn imports.

The other weak spots are the animated shorts. No cartoon, no matter how well drawn, is going to make you salivate over it. But David Zackin’s wistful Tunanooda has a squiggle-vision tuna casserole that’s only slightly less unappetizing than the real thing, along with a classic family bond/bondage storyline. Heterogenic and Idole Mio, on the other hand, are sterile, virtuosic displays of technique (the former a slick, Disneyfied updating of Rube Goldberg, the latter an exercise in artful claymation) that are only nominally about food.

I was most moved, most inspired, by the oldest of the shorts, Les Blank’s 1990 Yum Yum Yum, an homage to Cajun cuisine and bayou culture—the documentary that helped confer a certain legitimacy on a cuisine that had long been derided as trash. A lifetime of lessons on cooking (darken the roux well past the color of peanut butter for a richer, more complex gumbo), on eating (a fresh, just-slaughtered cow tongue is preferable to a hunk of day-old filet mignon), and on living (“If you really love something, you leave it alone”) is packed into 30 evocative, textured minutes. The bonds of family, the passing-down of recipes and traditions from generation to generation, the essential expression of a culture—it’s all here, all the big, moving themes that only the best food movies can manage.

But, of course, that’s not why I was inspired. I was inspired because of Yum Yum Yum’s wealth of sensual specifics. When I left the theater, dazed and ravenous, I ducked into the Whole Foods nearby, stuffing my cart with green bell pepper, celery, parsley, andouille, and shrimp for the killer dark-roux gumbo I whipped up that night. —Todd Kliman

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