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‘Like Water for Chocolate’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 06, 1993

"Like Water for Chocolate" is a Mexican revolutionary-era "Heartburn," an overly rich fable on the mysterious link between sex and food. It aims to portray the onset of Mexican feminism in 1910, but it's really just another hearth-set Cinderella story, one that connects cooking to sorcery and servitude.

The tale focuses on Tita (Lumi Cavazos), a lovelorn cook who finds that the way to a man's heart is slightly south of his border. Tita, the youngest of the wealthy widow Mama Elena's (Regina Torne) three daughters, literally grew up in the kitchen "amidst the smell of chicken soup, thyme, bay laurel, steamed milk, garlic and, of course, onion." But, by family custom, Tita must forgo marriage to care for her mother till the day the wretched woman finally dies. Tita is consigned to the ranch's enormous kitchen, where she is expected to live out her days as a spinster.

But Tita is a scrumptious dish, a taco belle who has already won the heart of a handsome rancher, Pedro (Marco Leonardi), whose request for Tita's hand is refused by Mama Elena. Instead Elena proposes he marry her eldest daughter, Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi), a selfish beanpole who dreams of a traditional life as mother and wife. "You can't just exchange tacos for enchiladas!" cries the middle daughter, Gertrudis (Claudette Maille), the spitfire of the bunch.

But Mama Elena is meaner than a tequila hangover, and Pedro, like his fairy tale forebears, is handsome but dumber than a half-baked adobe brick. To be near Tita, he agrees to the ill-fated marriage, which begins with a telling omen. When the guests at the wedding feast partake of the chabella cake prepared by Tita, they are overcome with tears and then nausea. Tita had wept into the batter, thereby flavoring it with her own sadness and barely suppressed desires.

Raised by the family's part-Indian cook, Nacha (Ada Carrasco), Tita learned not only the chemical but the alchemical reactions brought on by cooking. And these the film's narrator relates to the heroine's own heated state: "Preparing the mole, Tita knew how contact with fire alters elements, how dough becomes a tortilla and that a breast untouched by love just isn't a breast but a useless ball of dough." How's that for feminism?

For all the metaphorical oven-stoking, the film isn't especially raunchy since most of Tita's specialties cause gastrointestinal distress. Her recipe for quail and rose petal sauce, however, makes the "I'll have what she's having" scene of "When Harry Met Sally ... " look warmed over indeed. The sauce, which she squeezes from a bouquet given to her by Pedro, literally sends her sister Gertrudis into heat. In trying to cool down, she sets the bathhouse on fire. This draws the attention of a handsome revolutionary who happens by and lifts the naked woman onto his saddle and gallops off into the sagebrush.

In the tradition of modern Latin fiction, "Like Water for Chocolate" is a work of magic realism that portrays the fantastical as everyday. Adapted by screenwriter Laura Esquivel from her best-selling first novel, the film exists on two dimensions, allowing the living and the dead to interact as they please. Nacha dies, and her kindly ghost hovers about the hacienda, dispensing remedies as needed. When Pedro is badly burned, Tita prepares Nacha's miracle salve and he heals without a scar. When the baby sickens on Rosaura's milk, Tita's breasts engorge and she nurses the boy. Of course, there's nothing for Rosaura's bad breath and gaseousness. Seems Tita's cooking never set well with her.

Esquivel's tale of romance, revenge and obsession was drawn from her family's colorful history. She believes that food transmits the cook's emotional energy. "If all you do in the kitchen is open a can, there can be no love," says the writer, whose no doubt well-fed husband, producer-director Alfonso Arau, ably captures the sensuality of this womanly universe. Unfortunately for a feminist work, he also captured the ritual of impotent romantic longing that defines Tita's rebellion.

If revenge is sweet, then so is leading lady Lumi Cavazos, who plays her role with the quiet confidence that befits her delicate rebellion. Too bad she's got no greater goal than a night in the sack with Pedro, who turns out to be a real chile pepper in the bedroom. Unfortunately his passion ignites the sheets and the tale goes up in sparks like cheap fireworks. In the end, "Like Water for Chocolate" is an overwrought potboiler that punishes Tita for her sexual freedom.

"Like Water for Chocolate" is rated R for sexuality and is in Spanish with English subtitles.

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