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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Chocolate’: Scrumptious Tale of Love Repressed

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If ever a movie looked good enough to eat, it’s “Like Water for Chocolate” (Goldwyn Pavilion, Laemmle’s Sunset 5).

Set mostly in the Coahuila desert area of Mexico, in an elegant hacienda where a nutty upper-class family play out their madness against backdrops of revolution and illicit love, it’s one of the most sensuous and visually alluring Mexican films in years. It’s a 10-course feast of magic realism, a rapt tale of sexual repression exorcized in sumptuous feasts, while rebels roam outside and lovers wait a lifetime for a moment of candle-lit bliss. And it’s a movie where everything-- sex, hatred, family spats, politics--has been sublimated into cooking and eating. In “Chocolate,” the kitchen is, quite literally, a battleground.

Novelist-screenwriter Laura Esquivel and her director-husband, Alfonso Arau, are out to arouse our appetites, and they succeed. Arau and his cameramen bathe the screen in creamy or crystalline light, through which we see romance, murder, ghostly visitation and the most lip-smacking on-screen cuisine since “Babette’s Feast.”

“Like Water for Chocolate” is essentially a revolutionary film--but a gentle one. In the first scene, our narrator, while peeling onions, explains her tale as a tragic love story in the form of a cookbook--and, like Vladimir Nabokov’s pastiche poem and footnotes in “Pale Fire,” the recipes or banquets become the latticework through which we see life, love and death.

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“Like Water for Chocolate"--a double entendre that compares sexual excitement to the boiling point of cocoa--is about an interior revolution, matching the Pancho Villista revolt outside. The heroine, Tita de la Garza, has been sentenced to a life in the kitchen by her brutally patrician and prudish Mama Elena (Regina Torne), who, invoking an old family custom, makes Tita her lifelong drudge.

Tragedy and absurdity ensue. Tita’s love, Pedro, forbidden to court her, marries instead her flatulent older sister Rosaura, creating a trio of misery. Tita sublimates passion into a lifetime of enchanted cookery. When she cries into the wedding cake batter, the entire party bursts into passionate despair. When she cooks for Rosaura, she destroys her sister-rival’s kidneys. And, when she prepares her piece de resistance, Quail in Rose Petal Sauce, flavored with the blood of unrequited love, the diners all swoon in lust.

Much of “Chocolate” is told in an ironic off-screen narration nearly as deft as anything in “The Magnificent Ambersons” or “Barry Lyndon.” Like Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “Chocolate” carries the theme of separated lovers to majestic extremes, makes repressed passion a metaphor for a human spirit writhing under tyranny or convention. And Arau is a more sumptuous stylist than the usual Mexican filmmaker--even the great iconoclasts such as Luis Bunuel, or runners-up such as Hermosillo or Ripstein.

The acting is over-ripe, too. As Tita, Lumi Cavazos believably stirs up toughness and sensitivity. As Pedro, Marco Leonardi, the teen-age Salvatore in “Cinema Paradiso,” projects magnetic pretty-boy spinelessness. And the actors who won three of the film’s 10 Mexican Oscars (or “Ariels”) give us broad hits of pristine goodness or hellfire villainy: Mario Ivan Martinez as Tita’s devoted doctor-swain, Claudette Maille as the fiery Gertrudis, and Regina Torne as Mama Elena, an iron matriarch of infuriating witch/bitchery, her lips curling with theatrical disdain, the key to her dark secrets locked in a heart pendant on her breast.

Like most magic-realist tales--including the denser, more brilliant stories of Marquez and Llosa--Esquivel’s super-culinary saga has a tone of childlike wonder. Through all this dark whimsy and fairy-tale splendor, “Like Water for Chocolate” (MPAA-rated R, for sexuality) has a shine, a panache. It tells a dark, sad, horrific but heartening story in sweet, gleaming images that tickle ribs, quicken senses and awaken hungers. There’s just one word for it: Scrumptious.

‘Like Water for Chocolate’

Lumi Cavazos: Tita Marco Leonardi: Pedro Regina Torne: Mama Elena Mario Ivan Martinez: John Brown

A Miramax Film presentation. Director/Producer Alfonso Arau. Screenplay by Laura Esquivel. Cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki, Steve Bernstein. Editors Carlos Bolado, Francisco Chiu. Costumes Carlos Brown. Music Leo Brower. Art directors Marco Antonio Arteaga, Mauricio De Aguinaco, Denise Pizzini. Set designer Emilio Mendoza, Ricardo Mendoza, Gonzalo Ceja. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

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