(A quick aside before the real review. Somehow, even though I’ve reviewed well over 250 films so far, I haven’t reviewed a Mexican film yet. That’s craziness. This will be my first. It was pretty good so it was a great way to inaugurate Mexico into Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari)

As a picky eater and a romantic skeptic, a foreign romance hyped as a richly combined pastiche of sumptuous feasts and sexual symbolism didn’t really seem up my alley. Like several of the films I’ve covered on this blog, this was one of those instances where I’m happy to report my preconceptions couldn’t have been more wrong. A highly erotic and sensual tale of forbidden love fused with the literary school of magic realism as well as high tragedy turned Like Water for Chocolate into a fantastical peek into the cultural mores of early 20th century Mexico and a tale of star-crossed lovers that would make the Bard proud. While it may not rank among the greatest of cinematic romances, it is a constantly charming and heart-warming tale that can melt the heart of even the most jaded in the audience (though it’s heroes aren’t always incredibly likeable).

Like many foreign films, Like Water for Chocolate may pose something of a challenge to audiences who aren’t accustomed to the cultural and historical context of the film. Where I found some strange cultural actions in the German film The White Ribbon incomprehensible (and the class warfare in the French La Ceremonie indecipherable), I can easily see how people will be off-put by the often ethereal and supernatural nature of Like Water for Chocolate which spends most of its time in a basically realistic mode only to shift in and out of fantasy without warning. Deeply rooted in Mexican folklore as well as the very essence of Mexican storytelling, the mix of the spiritual and the mundane elevates the tragic romance at the core of the film into something timeless and magical.

In the early 1900s, Tita de la Garza (Lumi Cavazos) is the youngest daughter of the domineering and abusive Mama Elena (Regina Torne), whose husband died days after Tita was born. It has long been a family tradition that the youngest daughter in the family never marries and cares for the mother for the rest of her life. Mostly raised in the kitchen by the family cook, Tita has never had to question her lot in life until she falls in love with the dashing Pedro (Marco Leonardi). When Pedro asks for Tita’s hand in marriage, Mama Elena refuses and instead marries Pedro to her eldest daughter Rosaura, who Pedro only marries to stay near to Tita. With the love of her life taken away and the rest of her life spelled out for her by her controlling mother, Tita throws herself into her cooking until the help of a local doctor, who loves Tita although she still yearns for Pedro, teaches her to stand up for and live for herself.

The hermosa (beautiful for non-Spanish speakers) Lumi Cavazos was a genuine delight as the constantly put-upon Tita. Her journey from a scared young girl to a sexually aware and developed woman was a constantly shifting affair. With a warm and innocent smile (which never vanished even after her sexual desires began to take hold), Tita was a woman of intense passions. Whether she was taking the emotional and physical abuse of her mother, the resentful stares of his sister Rosaura, or repressing her own amorous desires, Lumi Cavazos guides Tita through the emotional maelstrom that is her life. It is a rare gift for actresses to shift in and out of wounded vulnerability and feminist outrage, but Lumi Cavazos possesses it nonetheless.

For a film with only a handful of actual sex scenes (and perhaps one of the most shocking/tragic sex scenes that I can think of at the film’s end), Like Water for Chocolate is as steamy as the kitchen where much of the action takes place. It’s been said before but it bears repeating. The difference between eroticism/sensuality and pornography is the lack of gratuitous titillation in the former. There’s nudity in the film but it’s never there so skeevy people in the audience can get their kicks. Instead, it underscores the sexual repression the women in this film faces and celebrates the human beauty of pure sexuality which is either shamed by religion or corrupted by pornographic excess. There’s something indefinably freeing about the sexual awakening on display in the film, and for those who can celebrate the beauty of our bodies and the ways we are intimate with others, it’s a beautiful sentiment.

The film’s issues arise in the man that Tita has her sights set on (and the otherwise sympathetic characters who get caught in the crossfire). Although Pedro marries Rosaura with the express intent of being closer to Tita, he still has sex with Rosaura, and as a married man, it’s not easy to sympathize with his regular attempts (and occasional successes) to rendezvous with Tita. He becomes increasingly open about his feelings for Tita even though he and Rosaura have two children together (though admittedly one dies). Rosaura isn’t very likable, what with marrying her sister’s soul mate and showing no remorse, but you still have to feel bad for a wife whose husband constantly disrespects her like that. Similarly, the doctor that falls in love with Tita wins her heart momentarily only to constantly play second fiddle to her true love to Pedro. Even Tita isn’t entirely innocent in all this (especially since she cheats with her sister’s husband).

It has been surprisingly difficult to find decent pictures of this movie on the internet so I’ll draw this to a close (a phrase I haven’t really been using much in reviews because I realized I was using it like overkill in the past). Although Like Water for Chocolate may sound like a chick flick (and it certainly is to an extent), it’s an exceptionally intelligent one. A grown-up fairy tale, the film will fill your heart with love and your stomach with hunger as you get drawn into this nearly mythical world of Mexican lovers and the bonds (and perils) of family. Magical realism has kind of gone out of vogue the last 15 years or so, and it’s a shame because Like Water for Chocolate shows you the beauty you can find when you mix the everyday with the extraordinary.

Final Score: B+