Saturday, May 17, 2014

Like Water for Chocolate Movie Review

Movies that age badly are fascinating to me. What to make of a movie that was well-regarded more than two decades ago upon its release, part of the Weinsteins’ Miramax success blitz in the 90s, and even garnered some middling awards attention, but left me scratching my head in wonderment at how anyone in their right mind ever thought this was a good movie. There are movies I don’t like that get lots of good critical attention where I can at least understand what people have fallen for. In the case of Como agua para chocolate – or Like Water for Chocolate in English – it struck me as more than just failing to appeal to my taste, but flat out bad filmmaking on a nearly objectively technical level.


The director was Alfonso Arau, best known to American audiences as El Guapo, the villain in Three Amigos! The writer was Arau’s wife, Laura Esquivel, who adapted her own novel for the screen. The story is framed by a young female narrator, crying as she prepares an onion for cooking. She tells a legendary story related to her by her own mother about her great aunt Tita, who cried so much in the womb that when she was born, they were able to dry the flood of tears and use the salt for cooking for years. Tita (Lumi Cavazos) is so full of emotion and cooking skill that she possesses the ability to imbue her preparations with the same emotional fires she feels in her heart. This means she can, accidentally or on purpose, bring an entire wedding party to shed tears of remorse for lost love, or cause such fiery passion in her sister that she strips naked, goes to the outhouse shower and sets it ablaze from the fire of her loins, making the metaphor quite literal.

Tita and a young handsome neighbor are in love and would like to marry, but for an oppressive family tradition that demands Tita, as the youngest daughter, remain unwed in order to care for her mother, Mama Elena (Regina Torné), the rigid and cold matriarch who has forgotten her own youthful days of passion and love that led to an illegitimate daughter and the death of her husband (from the shock of learning the truth). Tita’s suitor, Pedro (Marco Leonardi), takes the offer to marry the eldest daughter in order that he may remain close to Tita.

I understand that magical realism is an important literary sub-genre in Latin America. I’m not especially partial to it, but I have seen examples – from the 90s even – that I enjoyed much more. The House of the Spirits didn’t knock my socks off and I’m likely never to watch it again, but my memory of it is that it is a much stronger composition. And one of my favorite movies of that decade is Antonia’s Line, a Dutch movie that incorporates some elements of magical realism. But Like Water for Chocolate is also heavy on melodrama, touching on the worst aspects of Douglas Sirk and Latin American telenovelas. Think of the Will Ferrell movie Casa de mi padre, but without the winking.

Sadly, I feel like the offending tone of the film is the result of a director who ham-handedly attacked the soap opera elements of the story. Rather than allow them to play out naturally, he holds the camera tight on Mama Elena when she gives her harshest rebukes and doles out the strictest of commands and then the musical score underlines it in bold. But the poor acting certainly doesn’t help anything. Cavazos is passable in the lead role, but Leonardi is little more than a pretty face. It can be difficult to impossible to judge an acting performance in a foreign language without the benefit of getting all the subtleties of tone and emphasis. But Leonardi delivers his lines about as well as a block of wood. Torné is a forbidding presence with her hard features and piercing eyes, but I want to see a world weary actress in a role like this. She should have been an actress who tore up the screen and was suddenly in demand in Hollywood. But the whole thing is played like cheap TV.

I just don’t get it. Who knows? Maybe something about this film really struck a chord twenty years ago and the passage of time has left it back in the dust. Surely there’s a historical and cultural connection between the land of Mexico, the traditions – of food, sensuality, and family – that Esquivel really nailed. The title is a Spanish language idiom literally translated. It equates the boiling point of water with human sexuality. The way American film critics brought attention to that in 1993 leads me to believe the explanation was included in the press notes. Unfortunately, neither the title nor the film translate very well. I was lost.

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