Reviewed by: Artie Megibben
Teen to Adult
1 hr. 45 min.
Year of Release:
“One taste is all it takes.”
“Chocolat” is a modern morality play where morality is the bad guy and tolerance is its brave heroine. You know, that well-worn plot that flows so effortlessly from the pens of Hollywood writers and secular authors. We saw it in the 80s with the movie “Footloose”, in the 90s with the film “Pleasantville.” And most recently in director Lasse Hallström’s previous film, “The Cider House Rules.”
Instead of a narrow-minded fundamentalist preacher who spews forth damnation upon the evils of dance, or a claustrophobic B&W world where Fathers still Know Best, or even a quaint backward time when abortions were illegal, “Chocolat” deals with a time where a pervasive Catholic Church threatens to choke the joie de vivre, out of a quiet French village. Here, Comte de Reynaud played by Alfred Molina, is the mayor and moral center of the peaceful hamlet. He proofreads the priest’s sermons, rehabilitates the town wife-beater and organizes the community’s boycott against rampant immorality. You got it. He’s the evil Religious Right, the holier-than-thou Moral Majority—he, my brethren, is YOU!
But before you strike “Chocolat” off your “To See” list, consider this—the religious morality in these sorts of movies is always off-center, legalistic and ruthlessly judgmental. The sort of religious bigotry that Jesus spoke out against. The sort of merciless sanctimony that nailed Him to the cross. And that, my beloved, truly IS a bad guy. The only problem is—it is Grace, not tolerance or autonomy, which is the Good Guy. And occasionally, Grace is still manifested in the teachings of the Church. Teachings that frankly “Chocolat” seeks to depict as oppressive and unenlightened.
In the story, Vianne, an itinerant chocolatier and single mom (Juliette Binoche) and her out-of-wedlock daughter, Anouk, blow into town (literally blow, mind you) propelled by the North Wind, a symbol of change and freedom. It is the beginning of Lent, so setting up a Chocolate Shop is viewed as a clear affront to civility and an obvious temptation to the faithful’s Lenten fasts. The town Mayor, the Comte, sets out to discredit this vile temptress and her illegitimate daughter. Not hard to do in the 1950s in which the story takes place. But soon, villagers partake of her delicious chocolates made with a 2,000 year-old Mayan recipe.
So what’s it gonna be folks? 2,000 year-old Christianity or 2,000 year-old pagan bon bons? Well, considering the village’s Christianity has produced nothing but hypocrisy, battered wives, family discord and general oppression, the chocolates look pretty darn good. And as an added plus, these chocolates apparently produce renewed sexual passion, empowering feminine fortitude, and a touching reunion between the town’s crusty matriarch (Judi Dench) and her twelve-year old grandson.
The tide further begins to turn when another foreign force blows up river, a pack of gypsy river rats led by an Irish-tongued Johnny Depp. Soon the Mayor’s boycotts, sermon rewrites and second-handed sanctimony are of no use to stem the tide of tolerance and inclusion. By the end of the movie the Easter message’s Risen Christ sounds more like a politically-correct candidate in a Democratic run-off.
Be warned, the film is a chocolate-lovers delight, full of decadent cinematography featuring tempting truffles and piping hot cocoa. It also contains not-so-discreet glimpses of steamy, sexual encounters that give it its PG-13 rating. (Yes, this one pretty much hits all our appetites.)
On a positive note, the film, like Hallstrom’s “Cider House Rules”, also celebrates community—and if you watch closely—it shows the hollowness inherent in the footloose, solo life-styles it so heartily commends. The daughter longs to be accepted by the status quo, to have a mother who doesn’t break conventions, to have stability and maybe even a father-figure who could provide a sense of emotional wholeness. Even Binoche’s liberated character elects to settle down and let someone else spread her self-styled message of autonomy. A timely reminder, that in any age, too much freedom is as oppressive as too little.
After all, the true Risen Christ is not about joyless obedience nor is He about rudderless liberty. He calls us instead to take His yoke upon us. A yoke that is easy—but a yoke nonetheless.