Thursday, December 18, 2008

Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) -- living with decisions and passion!

Director: Alfonso Arau, 1992.

It was the Bard who said, "If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it." In this Mexican classic, Shakespeare's saying could be rewritten to become, "If food be the food of love, cook on." For food and cooking are central to the plot, being metaphors for life and expressions of passionate emotion.

In the film's opening, Elena (Regina Torné) is giving birth to her third-born, Tita (Lumi Cavazos), on the large wooden kitchen table. It is late 19th century. When her husband is told that one of his other daughters is not his it is too much for him. He has a heart attack and dies. The secret passion of his wife with another man that spawned Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé) has now left her a widow with three girls, one a baby.

Elena's adultery not only led to her husband's death, it also bore the fruit of bitterness in her heart. Living a morally hypocritical life, she would later banish the memories of Gertrudis and chastise Tita for secret passions. Sins of the parents often get passed down to the children, either genetically or by imitation. It is pure hypocrisy to keep our own sins secret while holding others, even our children, accountable to their same sins.

As baby Tita is cared for in the kitchen by the nanny/cook Nacha (Ada Carrasco), Nacha says, "You will be so beautiful that the first boy who sees you will want to marry you." To which Mamá Elena replies, "Nacha! Don't say that. As my youngest daughter, Tita will care for me until the day I die. She won't marry." This Mexican family tradition will set the tone for Tita's whole life. Born in the kitchen, she is destined to live in the kitchen using the magical amorous powers she is gifted with. she is a young woman she spots Pedro (Marco Leonardi), a handsome young Mexican who immediately declares his love for her. It is true love at first sight. Determined to marry her, he comes to her home to seek her mother's blessing. Taking tea with Elena, he is told this is impossible. Instead, Elena offers him her first-born, Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi). Unlike Arranged, which portrays arranged marriages in present-day New York, this is an arranged un-marriage in early 20th century Mexico. Pedro accepts, but only so he can live in the same house as Tita, the woman he loves. Though to do so he must share his bed with a wife he does not love.

To make matters worse, Tita is commanded by Mama Elena to prepare the wedding banquet. Tita has a magical effect with food. Her tears added to the cake batter, cause the cake to have an emetic effect. Without exception all who eat it become overcome with sadness, crying and vomiting. . life progresses, Tita takes over the kitchen and expresses her passion for Pedro through the dishes she prepares. Her love for cooking is surpassed only by her love for him. These delicacies are sensual indulgences that those who partake experience as never before. Much like Babette in the Danish film Babette's Feast, this is her gift to Pedro and her family.

When Pedro, Rosaura and their baby boy are forced to move to Texas by Mama Elena to curb Tita's passion, it leads to tragedy and Tita finally stands up to Mama. But free at last she is determined to live in silence. Even her doctor John (Mario Iván Martínez), who has been trying to woo her, cannot get through to her. Eventually, it is food, a simple bowl of broth, that brings her back to her senses. Water for Chocolate is a feast for the senses. It is a slow but engaging love story. Filled with warm colors, lots of oranges and reds, it conveys their passion visually even as Tita's concoctions convey her passions gastronomically. With magical realism, ghosts appear to give counsel or criticism to Tita. But it ends leaving the viewer with two narrative questions: did Tita marry John, and did Pedro make the right decision?

Living with decisions is one of the issues raised in this movie. Pedro is in some ways like the patriarch Jacob. Jacob fell in love with Rachel and wanted to marry her, but had to marry her sister Leah first. He had to wait 7 years only to be duped by her father Laban. He had to work another 7 years for Rachel's hand (Genesis 29). Jacob lived with his decision because he was in love with Rachel. But he eventually married her. Pedro, on the other hand, had to live with his decision to be near, but not have as wife, his true love. How long will we wait for someone we love? Are we willing to simply be near, to look on while someone else has the prize? This is difficult to do.

If Pedro offers one insight into life, Tita offers another. She shows how to approach life: with passion and zest. Given a lemon of a life, she made lemonade out of it. She discovered her gift in creating epicurial art, to be made then eaten, and used it to give joy and pleasure to others. What others would consider a chore, constantly cooking for the entire family, Tita considered an act of service and blessing. This is consistent with Paul's command, "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). We must live with passion, enjoying life, discovering and using our gifts to bless others, doing whatever comes our way for God's glory.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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