'Chocolat' a treat that nourishes the soul

"Chocolat" is as delectable as its title, but for all its sensuality it is ultimately concerned with the spirit. A fable of deceptive simplicity, adapted for the screen with mature skill and wisdom by a young American screenwriter, Robert Nelson Jacobs, from Joanne Harris' novel, it emerges as a splendid work in the grand humanist tradition of the classic cinema of France, where it takes place.

It was filmed in English (by superb British cinematographer Roger Pratt) with a multinational cast under the exquisitely subtle and shaded direction of Swedish-born Lasse Hallstrom, who has Jean Renoir's gift of embracing people in all their follies and strengths. It seems as French to the core as it seems very much the work of Hallstrom, whose gift in bringing outsiders in from the cold has shone in such cherished landmark films as "My Life as a Dog," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "The Cider House Rules."

On a wintry day in 1959 -- it could just as easily be 1859 in this unchanging French town -- a beautiful woman, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche at her most ravishing) and her small daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), come upon an ancient stone village perched high on a promontory over a river, bordered on its other side by vast, spectacular fields. You feel as if you have entered a Dutch or Flemish Old Master landscape.

Vianne rents a dusty, long-unused pastry shop from cranky old Armande Voizin (Judi Dench) and with breathtaking dispatch transforms it into an enchanting chocolaterie. The townspeople are entranced, but the town's grand seigneur, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), is not amused that Vianne should open her doors with the advent of Lent.

The count rules the town as did his ancestors, setting an example of piety. He quickly views Vianne as the enemy, especially because her chocolates seem to possess unusual properties, capable of curing or easing various ailments and restoring passion to stale marriages.

Vianne is a woman of mystery, and just as we're beginning to wonder whether there's something sinister about her or her chocolates, the film's perspective widens and deepens. We realize the mysteries that concern the filmmakers are those of the human heart.

The village is inviting, yet it is actually a somber place in the grip of a puritanical religiosity. Vianne does not hide that she is an unwed mother and refuses to attend church. There is something downright pagan about the subversive power of her chocolate; there's got to be a story about her that she does not care to reveal, but when all is told, she is a free spirit prepared to stand her ground against the count, who would like to send her on her way -- just as his ancestors did with the Huguenots.

Despite having been declared an undesirable by the count, Vianne attracts admirers. Her hot cocoa has eased the pains of her landlady, an independent soul long at odds with the community. While remaining feisty in her heart, Armande has mellowed and become Vianne's friend.

On a far more controversial note, Vianne has given shelter and work to the long-abused wife (Lena Olin) of the local tavern keeper (Peter Stormare). Terrified to the point of incoherence, Olin's Josephine goes on to blossom in her new circumstances; indeed, so haggard and ragged is the woman that we at first don't realize it is Olin, an enduring beauty of the international screen. Ever so gradually, Josephine is reborn as a woman and regains her looks in the process. But when the handsome river rat Roux (Johnny Depp) drops anchor, you know there's going to be big trouble ahead. ...

What concerns the filmmakers is religious practice that condemns rather than forgives, that excludes rather than includes. On one level, "Chocolat" is quite serious; on another it is equally droll, and its sterling cast easily handles its shifting moods. "Chocolat" is the human comedy in the form of a fairy tale, and as such, it takes formidable skill and judgment to pull off; the slightest misstep, and the whole thing collapses.

Thus, "Chocolat" represents an inspired collaboration between director, writer and cast to bring dimension and depth to its people, resulting in a raft of some of the year's most glowing performances. Binoche not only presents Vianne as a dazzling enigma but also illuminates the brave and lonely woman behind it; Molina's count is a maddeningly pious prig, but his basic impulses are actually well-meaning, and he, too, is basically a lonely man.

Dench and Olin have been given richly evolving roles to play, and neither could be better. Sporting what sounds like a hazy Irish accent, Depp, who was Hallstrom's memorable Gilbert Grape, easily fills the bill as bold romantic rebel.

There's also splendid work from little Thivisol, whose Anouk bears the brunt of her mother's nonconformity; from Aurelien Parent Koenig as Armande's clenched little grandson, intimidated by his zealously proper and repressed mother (Carrie-Anne Moss); and from Stormare as Olin's brutal and pathetic alcoholic husband. Leslie Caron lends a radiant presence as a widow worshiped too long from afar by shy neighbor John Wood. And finally there's Hugh O'Conor's wistful priest, a secret Elvis fan.

"Chocolat" is a work of artistry and craftsmanship at the highest level, sophisticated in its conception and execution, yet possessed of wide appeal. It's that rarity, a movie that opens at Christmas that reflects the true (as opposed to commercial) spirit of the season.