As part of a presentation I am working on I am reconsidering a set of Korean films for their commentary on eating disorders as a means to subvert gender norms and body politics within a contemporary discourse and while I know it is unlikely I am planning being asked about other ways in which food plays into a global narrative of gender and body politics, as such I am attempting to tackle a considerable amount of other films from global cinema which do deal heavily with food as a theme. The first stop, as should be no surprise, is with the mesmerizing, sultry and sensational Mexican masterpiece Like Water For Chocolate, which has become an art house staple and cinematic treasure within the two decades following its initial release. Mexican film certainly stands on its own two feet when it comes to an identity and culture, yet one would be really blind if they were to deny Like Water For Chocolate as a clear subscriber to two elements of traditional Spanish cinema, first being the heavy centering within the melodramatic tradition, perhaps the most important stylistic choice in Spanish film for the past century, as well as a clear consideration of magical realism which certainly occupies the space of the film, although it is certainly not as overbearing or present as other films from the country and certainly not on the level of some of the works drawing from Marquez or Lorca. I popped in a considerably older version of the DVD which is not the greatest of quality and clearly one of the lesser transfers of the film, however, it is easy to pick up on the cinematic magic of the film and its exceptional style. A film heavily influenced by sexuality and burgeoning desire, one quickly become intoxicated with the early twentieth century world actor-turned-director Alfonso Arau offers viewers. Of course, one would be foolish to simply label Like Water For Chocolate as a pretty looking film with equally pretty people living within its its spaces, because its very direct gender commentaries and considerations of the spheres occupied by those genders is clearly at the forefront of the film. It is no surprise that this film seems to grow a larger appreciation as years pass, because it is leaps ahead of its contemporary Belle Epoque a film I enjoyed, but am in no way enamored with, something I can certainly say about Like Water For Chocolate.
Like Water For Chocolate focuses primarily on Tita (Lumi Cavazos) a ethereal young woman who has been burdened with the unfortunate task of watching her mother, considering that she is the youngest daughter and tradition requires that she do so. Yet, as the narrator of the film, one of Tita's sisters granddaughters, explains she was born with such striking features that the first man to lay eyes on her would undoubtedly fall for her, and this proves to be the case when she meets Pedro (Marco Leonardi). Yet, Tita's mother Elena (Regina Torne) expressly forbids Tita from getting married, reminding Pedro that she is to take care of her until she passes, suggesting that the young man marries her other daughter Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) instead, something that Pedro agrees to do, realizing that it will still afford him an opportunity to see the woman he loves and eventually create a life with her. Of course, as any good narrative proves, even the best laid plans come with obstacles, despite Pedro doing his best to put off intercourse with Rosaura it eventually happens and a child is born as a result, although, poor health on the part of Rosaura leads to Tita becoming the primary caretaker for the young man, much to Pedro's elation. All the while, Tita comes to the realization that something about the cooking skills she as acquired from her late grandmother allow her to control the physical reactions of the world around her, using them, in fact, to ruin the festivities fo Rosaura and Pedro's wedding, as well as causing Rosaura to become overweight and unsightly, completely destroying her desirability to her husband, who already has eyes for Tita. All the while, Elena condemns Tita's every action and even when she dies her spirit returns to curse the young woman, resulting in fires literally occurring every time Tita and Pedro engage in physical intimacy. In the end, the passion of the two lovers proves to intense and Tita sacrifices them both to a fire, in order, to preserve the sanctity of everyone else in her lineage, although her history is clearly passed down through her cookbook, as the films closing moments suggest.
It is the lineage through food that sets the discussion up concerning femininity within the context of Like Water For Chocolate. A film full of female interactions, it is both progressive and backwards moving in its execution. Clearly the film embraces the power of matriarchal rule, creating a clear distinction between the power of Elena and pretty much every figure within the film. Even Tita's sister Gertrudis (Claudette Maille) manages to take control of a small militia and become a rather uncommon female solider. However, it is not easy to over look the oppressive acts occurring on the part of Gertrudis to her soldiers and much more blatantly in the relationship between Elena and Tita. In fact, if one were to draw upon a feminist identity within the film it would seemingly be within the hands of Tita who is oppressed for a majority of the narrative and simply desires to engage in and express her own condemned and disapproved form of love, yet her jealousy and divisive engagements with other members of her family, who are invariably of the same sex means that these actions are to be questioned and to a considerable degree exist within the same oppressive realm of her mother. Furthermore, little mention is given to the identities of the families various servants, including the main maid who is only used as a almost mammy figure after the loss of the families grandmother. It is interesting that the feminine bonds disappear after the disappearance of the grandmother, because I would certainly argue that she proves to be the most egalitarian and progressive character in the entire film, despite fitting the description, on paper, of a person who would cling to conservative values. The time period of this film reminds viewers that women's issues were prescient and to engage in conniving acts of back-stabbing is a decidedly internalized version of patriarchal oppression. I know I ramble and make some rather unusual connections, it is not to undermine the very pro-feminine nature of Like Water For Chocolate, as it does end suggesting that descendants will undertake a new idea of femininity detached from distrust and jealously, yet the narrative is so heavily invested in these elements that it cannot, and clearly should not, be ignored.
Key Scene: A scene involving quail and rose petal in its drawn out and grander execution is perfected magical realism if I have ever encountered it and boy does it scream cinematic brilliance.
Buy a copy of this film (no bluray as of yet), it is a must own and a definitive film from the Spanish speaking realm of global cinema.