Like Water for Chocolate (review)

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Food of the Film Gods

I must order Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, because it has the recipes. If you’re not dying to try Quail in Rose Petal Sauce (or that wedding cake!) after seeing this movie — which is based on the book, of course — then I’m sorry to say that you have no appreciation for life’s sensual delights.
A story of star-crossed lovers and magic fueled by unfulfilled desire, this lovely film encompasses all that is wonderful and sad about hunger… for food, for love, for life. In turn- of- the- century Mexico, Tita (Lumi Cavazos: Bless the Child) finds herself forever separated from her one true love, Pedro (Marco Leonardi: The Five Senses), by family tradition: As the youngest girl, she is forbidden to marry and is destined to care for her widowed mother, Elena (Regina Torné), in her old age. Worse, Elena arranges for Pedro to marry her eldest daughter, Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) — and Pedro agrees, since it will allow him to be near Tita on the ranch the extended family shares. Tita is heartbroken, and an anger with her mother that will last a lifetime begins to simmer.

Elena is as hiss-worthy as any fairy-tale evil stepmother, beautiful on the outside but with a selfish and ugly heart — and Rosaura easily follows in her footsteps. And like a fairy-tale heroine, Tita, lovely without and within, takes comfort in the ranch’s kitchen. Though she is treated by her mother as little more than another servant, Tita loves the company of the kind, elderly housekeeper Nacha (Ada Carrasco), and the young domestic Chencha (Pilar Aranda) is virtually Tita’s only friend. And Tita not only loves cooking, she has an enchanted talent for it that is intensified by her heartache for Pedro. Ordered by Elena to bake Rosaura’s wedding cake, Tita weeps over the batter… and her tears add an unexpected and poetically just kick to the finished cake. The aforementioned quail dish, cooked with roses Pedro gave Tita, results in a meal that he praises as “nectar of the gods” and that infects middle sister Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé) with their passion.

Food and sex, sex and food — just as they’re not too far apart on the pleasure continuum, here they empower women to grab what little opportunity to be themselves they can find. As Tita finds her strength and herself through cooking, Gertrudis’s sexual awakening leads her to the kind of power that a young woman of her time might never have expected to have, and to a life of adventure and excitement. Rosaura, the miserable sister, takes little pleasure from either food or sex, and once we discover that Elena had once denied herself true love, her meanness become less inexplicable, if not less excusable.

A golden glow suffuses Like Water for Chocolate, a sensuous comfort that feels like sitting in a kitchen, the oven warm from baking. Rosaura’s baby needs the heat and smell of a kitchen to be at ease — he learns, from a tender age, that the kitchen feels like the most natural place to be in a homey house. And in a homey movie like this one, it’s no wonder we spend so much time with Tita in her kitchen.

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