The kitchen and the bedroom.
In 1910 Mexico, a woman's choices, bound by tradition and the macho ethic, were severely limited. Like Water for Chocolate, the film adapted by Laura Esquivel and her director/producer husband, Alfonso Arau, from Ms. Esquivel's internationally best-selling novel, is the raunchy, romantic, dreamlike rendering of one woman's quiet rebellion set against the larger backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.
Tita, the youngest of Juan and Elena de la Garza's three children -- all of them girls -- is literally born into the kitchen. While celebrating her birth, Tita's father is confronted with the accusation that his previous offspring, Gertrudis, was actually fathered by another man, a -- gasp! -- mulatto. Collapsing under the weight of this ultimate offense to the macho code, Juan has a heart attack and dies.
Mama Elena decrees that Tita will now be expected to uphold the time-honored family tradition wherein the youngest daughter in a household is forbidden to marry, and must care for her mother until death do they part. At first Tita obediently accepts this fate, displaying a particular affinity for the kitchen. For years she blithely toils beside the family retainer, Nacha, who coaches Tita in the finer points of cooking with all the love the young girl's oppressive mother withholds.
Enter Pedro, the dashing young son of a neighboring rancher. A demure smile, a smoldering glance, and Pedro and Tita fall in love (they didn't have singles bars and long conversations about who was on Letterman or Jane Whitney in those days). When the young man shows up to ask for Tita's hand in marriage, however, the bitchy matriarch nixes the union, lining up the boy with her eldest daughter, Rosaura, instead. Pedro unexpectedly goes along with the idea, seeing it as his best bet for keeping his true love close at hand. (Hey, we said he was dashing. We didn't say he was smart.)
To punish her daughter for attempting to tamper with tradition, Sra. de la Garza consigns Tita to preparing the nuptial feast. It is here that Like Water for Chocolate shifts gears from a well-written period soap opera into something more fantastic. We discover Tita's magical ability to transmit her feelings to anyone who tastes her food, as when wedding guests who have sampled her cake are first overcome with grief, then sickened to the point of lining up for a group retch into the stream that runs through the de la Garza ranch. It's the kind of subtly surrealistic scene that would have done Fellini or Busuel proud.
Rosaura bears a son by Pedro, who has bedded her reluctantly while still pining for her youngest sister. Aware of the unspoken but palpable electricity between Tita and her brother-in-law, the obstinate mother makes a concerted effort to keep them apart. She succeeds temporarily -- Pedro and Rosaura move away -- and the bitter old woman's grip on her obedient daughter tightens. But Rosaura's baby, cut off from Tia Tita's nourishment (both physical and emotional), dies.
And so it goes. The revolution rages. Tita meets and agrees to marry a nice young doctor. Mama finally dies, but her ghost continues haranguing poor Tita. Rosaura has another baby, suffering complications that temporarily immobilize her and set Pedro and Tita up for the clandestine consummation of their smoldering ardor. Rosaura becomes as sour and contentious as her deceased mother but doesn't have the sense to order out for dinner; a steady diet of Tita's cooking dooms her to chronic gastric distress, which eventually results in her death. Tita and Pedro are finally free to indulge their enduring passion with reckless abandon.
There are any number of opportunities for a lesser writer or director to allow the film to degenerate into the stuff of novelas, but Esquivel and Arau deftly avert the pitfalls. A particularly audacious (and memorable) scene in which Gertrudis, her libido uncontrollably aroused by one of Tita's meals, literally causes a wooden shower stall to burst into flames with her body heat, then runs naked into the arms of a handsome guerrilla fighter riding horseback, could have been a silly, pretentious washout in the wrong hands.
Like Water for Chocolate (an expression that describes someone in a state of extreme agitation or sexual arousal, derived from the Mexican custom of making hot chocolate from boiled water instead of milk) works both as an allegory for the awakening of feminism and as a romantic love story. But the film's unique appeal has more to do with its masterful evocation of the inexplicable nature of everyday life and its adherence to the tradition of lo real maravilloso (magic realism), whose practitioners include Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez, and Fuentes. Not as shocking as Santa Sangre, or as dark and formidable as Erendira, Like Water for Chocolate deserves a category of its own A call it magic realism Lite. No hacked-off limbs, tattooed strongmen, or messy Freudian symbolism.
Amazingly, despite the many otherworldly incidents that occur throughout Chocolate (lovers literally throw off sparks; ghosts appear both to haunt and to give advice), Arau resists the temptation to call in the special-effects wizards. Perhaps this restraint is a sign of sure-handedness resulting from the director's extensive curriculum vitae, which dates back to a starring role in the nightmarish cult classic El Topo. Then again, maybe he just couldn't afford to do things any other way. Whatever the motivation, Arau did the right thing, making optimal use of the ruggedly beautiful Coahuila Desert with its stunning colors and dramatic visuals (night scenes of the de la Garza mansion silhouetted against a stark landscape and illuminated by lightning flashes are breathtaking).
Unlike the novel, which was the stuff of much critical analysis/hype A it was a story in twelve installments each organized around elaborate, unorthodox recipes and home remedies A the movie follows a more linear expository path. While emphasis is placed on the extravagant meals so meticulously prepared (and painstakingly filmed), the spiritual importance of food is significantly toned down for the big screen.
The payoff for such organic filmmaking and attention to detail is a work that exudes authenticity even as it delves into the realm of fantasy. That is especially important in light of the uneven performances turned in by the cast. Lumi Cavazos is fine as Tita; Marco Leonardi, such a treat in Cinema Paradiso, is merely adequate as Pedro. Claudette Maille's lusty Gertrudis and Mario Ivan Martinez's portrayal of John Brown, the kindly doctor who almost wins Tita's hand but never quite finds her passion button, are inconsistent A they steal one scene only to botch the next. Regina Torne is suitably pinched and severe as Mama Elena, but hers is essentially a one-dimensional role and Ms. Torne does little to broaden it.
But not to worry. Passionate writing, accom-plished directing, and a little magic carry the day.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.