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In the early 1990s Mexico reasserted itself as an international player in cinema. Two successes of the time were Afonso Cuáron's Sólo con tu pareja and Alfonso Arau's even bigger hit Like Water for Chocolate, from the novel by Laura Esquivel. Como agua para chocolate was a dream property for the Mexican culture ministries, that welcomed a hit movie follow-up to an international literary success. The story is steeped in rich Mexican qualities: tradition, romance, fated fantasy, the revolutionary past.
Three more qualities propelled Like Water to greater popularity. It successfully (extravagantly!) visualizes the literary genre of Magic Realism. It's also a highly erotic story about forbidden passions in a rigid social framework. And much of the movie's magic and eroticism is conveyed through the art ofÉ cooking and food preparation. Sex, love and good eating are practically equated.
Actor Alfonso Arau is still best known here for his long-ago role in The Wild Bunch but had also been directing for over twenty years. He was married to Laura Esquivel, and encouraged her to write the original novel. It incorporates stories from Esquivel's own family, and is indeed organized around nine real recipes.
Near the U.S. border in Mexico, widow Mamá Elena (Regina Torné) rules her three daughters with an iron fist. She cites family tradition as an excuse to force the youngest daughter Tita (Lumi Cavazos) never to marry so as to take care of her mother into old age. Elena turns away a marriage proposal for Tita from the handsome young Pedro Muzquiz (Marco Leonardi) and instead suggests that Pedro marry Tita's older sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi). To TIta's horror, this is what Pedro does -- but only to be near Tita. What follows is twenty years of bizarre events, with lovers thwarted and finding satisfaction in other pursuits. Tita suffers but uses her cooking talent to get back at her mother and undermine Rosaura's marriage. A soldier of Pancho Villa carries off eldest daughter Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé), but she eventually returns as a revolutionary general. Tita is wooed by the gringo doctor John Brown (Mario Iván Martínez) but questions her ability to properly love him. The complications, rivalries and magic recipes eventually reach into the next generation.
Audiences loved Like Water for Chocolate's earthy, marvelously vulgar directness, especially its extravagant explosions of magic realism. A pregnant woman's water breaks, flooding the kitchen with gallons of salt water. Born on a kitchen table, Tita is gifted with magical cooking powers. She uses her cooking skills to disrupt her sister's wedding and also to conjure tremendous erotic forces. Tita makes Gertrudis so 'hot' that water steams off her in the shower and the bath shack bursts into flame.
Other fantasy touches are somewhat subtler, as when Rosaura, departing on a wagon, trails behind her an endlessly long quilt. Its meaning can be debated, but the irrational visual is there for its own sake. For a while the show becomes a ghost story, with Tita forced to defend the rightness of her actions against the objections of her departed mother. Unfortunately, the only way to freedom is to cast off her tormentor, forever.
In this movie, the contradictory absurdities of life and love cannot be reconciled with a simple moral rulebook. Cheated by her mother and betrayed by her sister, Tita's protest is nevertheless expressed in love. She takes care of Rosaura's children as if they were her own. In love there are winners and losers, and even Mamá Elena has tragic reasons to treat her daughter so cruelly. Tita in turn must disappoint a good man who loves her dearly, all for the sake of her one true, but forbidden love. All in all Like Water for Chocolate is about refusing to stop loving to satisfy the demands of family. Tita claims that her recipes are superior because of the love she puts into them. The book and movie assert that if one puts enough raw love into the world, magical things will happen.
Star Marco Leonardi is a handsome, somewhat passive romantic figure, but the movie belongs to the enchanting Lumi Cavazos, whose face seems open to all possibilities. The Tita character radiates warmth and spirit, and an optimistic attitude that flows through her fingers into her food. Three years later, the actress had an important, memorable role in Wes Anderson's first movie Bottle Rocket, as a motel maid who falls in love with a goofus played by Luke Wilson. Regina Torné is an imposing figure, a villainess seemingly punishing Tita for all the things that have gone wrong with her own life. The political marriages in Like Water for Chocolate all but guarantee that the patrimony of children is left in doubt. The women handle the stress better than the men, who have a bad habit of dropping dead.
Alfonso Arau's direction is inspired. He gets maximum effect from his actors, while the frequent glimpses of Tita's cooking steer the film in the gastronomic direction of Babette's Feast. One of the cameramen is the Mexican genius Emmanuel Lubezki, whose style immediately caught on; he's been a top international cinematographer ever since. A couple of dance scenes with the revolutionaries look as though they're lit only by firelight; they're truly beautiful. Stoves, ovens, griddles, candles -- fire seems the equivalent of passion in this impressively moving picture, a visual and emotional delight.
Arrow Films' Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Like Water for Chocolate is a handsome encoding of Alfonso Arau's modern classic. Colors are warm; the deserts of Northern Mexico never looked so glorious. Is that river next to Tita's ranch supposed to be the Río Grande?
The one extra is a new commentary with director Arau and stars Cavazos and Leonardi. We like them a great deal but must wade through a couple of reels of mutual praise before learning more about the film. Arau explains how his screenwriter wife Laura Esquivel was entreated to write her book. Leonardi talks about being an Italian actor, working for the first time in a different country, in a different language.
Twenty years ago Like Water for Chocolate was used as a battering ram against the Weinstein Brothers, who were blamed for importing foreign films for their Miramax company and then editing them to their own tastes. The version here is the only one viewable in the United States, almost a full reel short of the original Mexican cut. We don't know; perhaps it was really edited by Arau himself, on export. Is the answer in a part of the commentary that I missed? 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dear Glenn: It was always my understanding -- of course, this could have been powerful Weinstein-circulated doublespeak -- that Arau was specifically and personally involved with the Like Water re-edit (released to great success by Miramax in 1993). I want to say that the filmmaker was quoted somewhere as stating that his film had been at least slightly improved by the editorial once-over. The quote might well have been fabricated. But Arau might have been so pleased that his film was getting the full Miramax arthouse push, he may have been expressing general enthusiasm. As we both know, few Mexican productions have ever received wide play here. The Laura Esquivel novel had been a great sleeper success and stayed on best-seller lists for many months. The popularity of the book practically guaranteed that even a semi-releasable feature film adaptation would see some domestic release, but between the shrewd and intensive Weinstein marketing and the movie's singular romantic charm, Like Water for Chocolate caught on at arthouses and ran for months.
It goes without saying that Harvey Weinstein wasn't casually nicknamed "Harvey Scissorhands." It's hard to think of many foreign films the Weinsteins acquired for domestic release that weren't at least slightly trimmed or restructured in NY before their U.S. theatrical premiere. Certainly a number of filmmakers later complained about this treatment, some bitterly. Weinstein started to take a lot of flak for this, mostly deservedly.
I will say this: I saw a long version -- I believe it was the already somewhat shortened international version -- of Nuovo cinema paradiso at a film festival in 1989. It was a crowd pleaser (it was a film festival screening!), but it seemed a little long and diffuse. By the time Miramax opened the film in America as Cinema Paradiso in 1990, they'd shaved it down by not quite ten minutes. It did seem to play better, and audiences took to it immediately. I'm very reluctant to vouch for Harvey's ways, but after seeing a happy upper west side audience unreservedly lap up the Miramax cut, I'm tempted to say that the Weinstein instincts were on target in this case, anyway. [The Weinsteins swiftly glommed on to Tornatore, and he practically became a house director for them; in 2002, they even theatrically reissued the original 173 min. version of Paradiso in the U.S.]
I don't immediately recall the Weinsteins taking a hit specifically for the job they did on the Arau film. They were criticized for sins against other films, certainly. They were also justly criticized for acquiring a passel of films that they then failed to release in any format; it is said that a number of foreign pictures still controlled by Miramax have yet to see the light of day in North America. Arau, at any rate, did not go to work for Harvey and Bob; his next film was A Walk in the Clouds for Fox, followed by the odd dark indie comedy Picking Up the Pieces, which wound up premiering here on Showtime.. Since then in America he has worked mostly in television; he has also directed films in Mexico and Italy.
So, yep, your paragraph is okay as far as I know. Best, Always. -- B.
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