When we first meet the young woman who tells us the history of her great aunt, Tita, she is in her kitchen cooking. When we are introduced to Tita herself, she is being born on a kitchen table amid a great scatter of edibles. People are forever eating food in this picture or discussing food or preparing it. Food is seen as a sustenance for the body, the soul, and the spirit. And not since "Tom Jones" has food taken on such erotic meaning.
Yet "Like Water for Chocolate" is not a motion picture about food. It is a bittersweet, romantic comedy told in mystical, surrealistic terms, a love story expressed through the metaphors of food. In this 1992 film from Mexico, family, love, tradition, and a dose of the metaphysical go hand-in-hand. The story is at once passionate, sensual, and humorous and should appeal to anyone with enough imagination to accept a little enchantment in everyday life.
The story is told in flashback, as in a dream, starting in the year 1895 and continuing some forty years. Tita's father dies soon after her birth, and Tita, the youngest of three sisters, is raised by a stern matriarch. Tita (Lumi Cavazos) grows up in rough times on a ranch during the Mexican Revolution. Worse, she is destined to follow the family custom of never marrying, but taking care of her mother until the day she dies.
The film chronicles Tita's struggles with love, with men, with her sisters, and with her mother. While in her teens, Tita falls for a young neighbor, Pedro (Marco Leonardi), but the oppressive, overbearing mother will have none of it. She forbids Tita to see him. In desperation, the young man marries Tita's next-older sister, Rosaura, just to be near her. For a while Pedro and his bride even live in the same house with Tita and her mother and oldest sister. But it is not to be. The mother becomes suspicious and orders Pedro and his wife out. When her love moves off, Tita whiles away the hours pining for him by knitting a blanket that eventually stretches to a good quarter mile!
Based on the best-selling novel by Laura Esquivel, the story reminds one of Rudolfo Anaya's similarly bewitching book, "Bless Me, Ultima." There is a good deal of "magical realism" in both tales, an integral part of many cultures where a belief in the effects of the supernatural becomes a very real part of routine existence. It is taken for granted that there is more to life than the mind can perceive, and people act accordingly on transcendental insight, arcane ritual, faith, and heart. Maybe that explains the continual references to food and flame in the story. Tita learns to communicate through food; she also learns that we are all born with a box of matches in us, which only the oxygen of a lover's breathe can kindle. When it does ignite, we see literal sparks fly. The movie's world is one of myth and spirits, where everything is possible. It is a world of love, but not always of happiness.
Ms. Esquivel's novel is very much a woman's story, centered around Tita, her sisters, and her mother. As for Pedro, it's hard to say what Tita sees in the guy to persuade her to devote a lifetime waiting for him. He is handsome, to be sure, but he is something of a drip. If either he or the doctor who later courts Tita had any gumption or sense at all, they would have ridden up on horseback and carried her away naked, as a revolutionary soldier does with the oldest sister, Gertrudis. Tita, unlike Pedro, is the very model of pluck. Maybe she isn't too bright or she wouldn't have remained so loyal to him, but she is certainly spirited. Our first clue to her nature is that constant little curl right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.
Now, about the picture quality. Frankly, it is mediocre. The 1.60:1 ratio screen size is not very wide, which may be good or bad depending on how you look at it. I remember seeing the film for the first time in a small theater in Carmel, California, where the screen size was about 1.66:1. I also remember the image looking a bit soft and blurry, and on DVD it is all intact. Nevertheless, this softened aspect is undoubtedly intentional, a reflection of the movie's atmosphere; the bulk of the picture is done largely in earth tones, browns and oranges, sometimes purposely bleached into an old-fashioned sepia color reminiscent of early cinema.
The sound is stereo, but it is very narrow stereo, with the back channels hardly used at all. It does, however, convey a natural tonal balance and, like the image, is meant to take second place to the movie's plot and characters.
There are virtually no extras on the disc. Spanish and English are the spoken languages, with English available for subtitles. Nineteen scene selections. No trailer.
I had to ask a friend what the title meant, the same friend and colleague, David Martinez, who clarified for me the meaning of "magical realism." He explained that just as a hot chocolate drink requires pouring boiling water into the chocolate, so does love require boiling passions be poured into a relationship. Ultimate sexual amour cannot be excited through objective or indifferent emotions. It is also possible that the title means a person should not have to accept plain water for tasty chocolate, as Tita accepts a mundane life rather than ardent romance. Or the title may be like Waterford glass.
What do I know. "Like Water for Chocolate" may seem melodramatic to some sober-minded viewers, but it amply demonstrates a genuine respect and affection for life's more fervent, intuitive side. As Tita says about her food, "The secret is when you cook it, you must do it with much love." It produces a lovely movie, too.