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‘Like Water for Chocolate’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 05, 1993

The title may be a mouthful but "Like Water for Chocolate" is a feast for the soul. Hauntingly and exquisitely prepared, this Mexican adult fairy tale is garnished with mystery and wonder. It's the best movie to establish the spiritual link between food and the human condition since "Babette's Feast" or "Tampopo."

In 1910, in Mexico's northern plains, quiet Tita (Lumi Cavazos) and her two sisters suffer under the thumb of widowed Mama Elena (Regina Torne). According to family tradition, youngest daughter Tita must tend to her mother until the crusty lady's dying day. Sent permanently to the kitchen to assist old cook Nacha (Ada Carrasco), she discovers a secret world. Nacha shows her mystical -- even volatile -- qualities in food. There's sorcery in the preparation.

When Tita and handsome rancher Pedro (Marco Leonardi) fall in love, her servitude becomes a curse. Mama Elena refuses Pedro's marriage request and offers oldest daughter Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) instead. To Tita's horror, Pedro accepts. His reason, he tells her, is to be in the same household. Their affair, he promises, will never die.

Mama Elena -- ever vigilant of Tita's affections -- orders her to make the wedding cake. It is here that Tita's newfound magic becomes clear. Her tears, which spill into the cake batter, induce instant, mutual heartbreak in the family and wedding guests. In a wonderfully tragicomic scene, an entire party takes to the riverside to bawl uncontrollably for their own most elusive love.

It's the beginning of many such supernal phenomena. When Pedro gives Tita roses, the thorns cause her to bleed at the breast. She then makes a quail dish with the slightly bloody petals. The meal (cooked with intense passion for Pedro) causes middle sister Gertrudis (Claudette Maille) to literally sizzle. She has the sensual epiphany of her life, leaps naked on the horse of a romantic bandito and never turns back.

In fairy tales (and the magic realism of the Laura Esquival novel on which this is based), time exacts a cruel tax. The Pedro-Rosaura marriage, which bears children, endures. So does Mama Elena's tyrannical grip. Rape, burnings and untimely death are existential regularities.

Tita's power continues, from a passionate ability to produce lightning storms to the virginal breast milk she produces for a needy nephew. So does her love, despite ever- present obstacles. Beyond Elena's resistance, for instance, there are sister Rosaura's feelings to contend with.

"Like Water for Chocolate" (the title gets easier the more you say it) charts this frustrating, romantic saga with deep sensuality. The title is a Spanish expression for intense agitation or sexual arousal; it refers to the boiling-water requirement for chocolate preparation. You'll see a lot of that hot-chocolate stuff here. There are also some beautiful passages from narrator Esperanza (Arcelia Ramirez) -- Tita's grown-up niece recalling these events from years ago. Tita knew (Esperanza relates) how fire could transform flour into a tortilla, how a breast untouched by a lover is like a useless lump of dough and yet how Pedro, without even touching her, turned her breast from chaste to voluptuous.

Through the repressed steaminess and roiling tragedies, Esquival (who adapted the screenplay) and director Alfonso Arau spare no opportunity to sweeten things with comedy. While others experience rapture from Tita's meals, Rosaura suffers merely flatulence. And when Gertrudis, now a revolutionary in her own right, returns home after many years, she delivers a pithy testament to Tita's culinary skills. "Revolutions," she declares, "wouldn't be so bad if you could stay home and eat with your family."

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