Saturday, November 04, 2006

chocolat (mathewes-green & wilkinson)

When CHOCOLAT hit the theatres, my Soul Food email wasn't called Soul Food yet. It was Art Alert. Well, I alerted people to the flick, people thought I was recommending it - kind of "The Must-See Christian Film Of The Moment," which certainly wasn't what I had in mind. Nor was it true. But it ended up being one of the most interesting movie conversations I've been in on.

Anyhow, two particular responses to the film particularly shaped my eventual understanding of the film. Frederica Mathewes-Green brilliantly and forcefully made the case for what bothered me about the film, then Loren Wilkinson drew out what was right about the film - as is his way.

Why those faithful who fast aren't simply chocolate soldiers
Frederica Mathewes-Green, Beliefnet

I've got an idea for a movie script guaranteed to win an Oscar. We'll call it "Sizzle." See, there's a village in India where all the people think there's something bad about eating beef. It's part of their religion, which says they should repress their desires and hate pleasure. Then this sexy young cowboy comes to town and opens up a grill. All day long it's thick steaks frying, or maybe some tender filets, and sometimes he dishes up a few racks of barbecued ribs.

Well, pretty soon the fragrance is drifting through the town, and the people can't stand it. They try to resist, but one by one they sneak into the grill and have a little taste. Imagine the closeups as their eyes water and a little shiny trail of grease slides down their chins. Sure, they feel guilty, but they just can't help it. The village leader thinks he's real holy and rails and rants, but it's no use; that cowboy is so handsome and big-hearted and friendly, everyone can see he's really the hero. He defies authority and sets people free.

At the end there's this really funny scene where the stuck-up leader breaks into the grill late one night, intending to destroy it, but instead he eats hamburgers till he's sick. The next day, the holiest day of the year, the local guru gives a speech about how they've been misunderstanding their religion all along. All that really matters, he says, is embracing life to the fullest. The movie ends with a big party where everybody chows down on the juiciest steaks ever to kiss a grill.

You probably recognize this as the plot of the Oscar-nominated film, "Chocolat." Like "Chocolat," my imaginary film has one fatal flaw: it is stupendously ignorant of the spiritual tradition of the community it's presuming to chastise. Now, films that set out to criticize an unfamiliar faith might well tread cautiously, moving with appropriate hesitation and humility, if not respect. But not so "Chocolat." As in my blockbuster, "Sizzle," towering ignorance combines with invincible self-righteousness to form an impenetrable shield of condescension.

"Chocolat" blunders into a small French village in the spring of 1959 without a clue as to the meaning and power of Lenten sacrifice. It would not have taken exhaustive research to discover that Lent is a period of grieving for the ways humans mess up the world and hurt each other. It is a time that Christians turn inward and ask in the quiet of their hearts, "How have I been part of the problem?" In admitting these faults to God in the presence of a priest they gain profound peace and release, and the power to change their lives.

Since many of these sins are due to lack of self-control -- lashing out at someone in anger, stealing something on an impulse -- Christians do exercises to gain self-control, much as a weightlifter hoists barbells. Delicious things that might be enjoyed at any time are set aside for a few weeks, to make the willpower muscle stronger. Resisting chocolate today can help you resist an angry outburst tomorrow.

This simple concept is totally lost on the makers of "Chocolat." They're not alone; spiritual self-denial in any form is Moon Maid talk to Americans. Why is it so hard for us to understand the concept of spiritual discipline? The practice is present in some form in every world religion, yet we can fathom nothing but bigger, faster, fatter, more. Throughout the ages a universal principle has persisted that the person who seeks to enter the vast presence of God must do so by making himself smaller. Yet in America, dessert comes on a plate big enough for four. And America religion better follow suit, and promise a good time for all, all the time.

It's not just Hollywood that teaches this message. As our political leaders fret over the economy, we're told our financial well-being has come to hang on something called "consumer confidence," otherwise known as indulging our will to spend. Many of us went to see "Chocolat" at a mall, then walked out into a land of tantalizing wonderments, each begging for a chance to fondle our plastic. Spending has become a near patriotic duty. Why hold back from desire? Why practice any self-restraint? Delicious indulgence is what makes the world -- but especially the economy--go round.

Yet just about any major religion gives the opposite advice. Self-discipline is a universal, even though the details of, and rationale for, these self-limitations vary widely. The Hindu does not eat beef and the Orthodox Jew does not eat pork, but they have different reasons. The Orthodox Christian does not eat either one during Lent, with yet another rationale, then returns to both with gusto on Easter. People of various faiths practice differing disciplines with different goals, but everyone recognizes their value.

Is any spiritual force treated positively in "Chocolat"? Mayan culture provides a shadowy, seductive background for the chocolatier's magic, but this is a tourist's fuzzy, romantic view. Our tolerant, compassionate filmmakers probably wouldn't be comfortable with the demands of Mayan spirituality, which went far beyond voluntary, temporary self-denial. A person -- man, woman, or child -- would be painted blue, then laid on an altar. Four priests would restrain him while the fifth swiftly sliced open his chest and pulled out the still-beating heart, smearing the blood on an idol.

So it wasn't all chocolatey self-indulgence with the Mayans. When you have human sacrifice as the central act of worship, it's unlikely that the preceding sermon is marked by flower-power giddiness.

It's a bizarre touch that the narrator of "Chocolat" specifies at both the beginning and the end of the film that the evil thing that had to be destroyed was the town's "tranquilite." Who wants tranquility? Can't we have more noise, more flashing lights, more TVs in the checkout line, more tinny radios in the gas pumps? Why are there so few blazing tabloids and garish cereal boxes? When I click the remote around the channels, why don't I see more people shouting and arguing? What's wrong with the world? Too much darn tranquility.

Could this cinematic rejection of tranquility possibly be an intentional allusion? The height of ancient Christian mysticism is called "hesychasm," that is, "stillness" a peace laced with awe at beholding the Almighty. In the presence of that overflowing love there is a tranquility that passes all understanding.

But that's not what a hip person would want, someone who wants to be free and to defy authority. What you want, buddy, is to pack another slab of chocolate cheesecake onto those rolling hips. C'mon -- it's the American way.


Loren Wilkinson on "CHOCOLAT"

I think it’s time to say a good word or two for Chocolat. I saw it on a snowy night last January in Kingston Ontario (having just given a lecture” at Queens University on “Environmental Ethics and the Religious Nature of Science”, so maybe I was ready, at 10:15, for some sort of dessert). I knew nothing about the film other than it had something to do with food.

All of the bad things which have been said about the film are undoubtedly true (the silliness of the faint French accents in a French town, and the Irish accent in the male hunk, etc.) True also is the complete misunderstanding about what Lent ought to be, the characteristic negative stereotyping of Christians, the vacuous spirituality of the romanticized Mayan alternative, the glorification of self-indulgence, etc.

So what’s good to say about the film? I was pretty upset about the portrayal of the church and of Christianity till very near the end--but by the end found I was able to forgive almost all of the film’s flaws for two reasons, one pretty obvious, the other more subtle.

The obvious reason is that all too often the church DOES act this way towards outsiders who don’t fit in, and all too often DOES have a pretty gnostic view of pleasure, and of the whole material world, which has surfaced all too often throughout the church, both Catholic and Protestant versions. (Consider, for example, the way we have almost completely severed the “communion meal” from any reminder that it was part of not just a meal, but a feast.) It’s pretty obvious that the film is making the point that the chocolate shop is doing what the church and Christians ought to be doing: listening to people’s problems, meeting their needs, going out of their way to help when people are in trouble. Ask yourself: which is most like the church and Christian community in general as you have experienced it: the church as portrayed in the film, or the chocolate shop? In this context, it’s no small point--and an enormous reversal of expectations--when the person who points out that the church ought to behave with embrace rather than exclusion is the Catholic priest, the official voice of the church in the film (not the exceedingly messed up Count). And he does it not by denying the divinity of Christ (he affirms indirectly) but by drawing attention to the fact of Christ’s humanity,and his love.

The more subtle point is that the climax of the film--the Count’s attempt to destroy the chocolate display, and his resulting binge--is presented as a direct result of his prayer before the crucifix. Superficially we might conclude that Jesus is telling him to go break up the chocolate idols. In fact of course the Count’s action leads to the beginning of his transformation--not, I think we can conclude, into a chocolate binging pagan, but into a Christian who knows something of how Christ welcomes the stranger.

I fully admit that most people won’t see the film this way--and likewise won’t see the strong Christian truths expressed in films like “The Apostle”, “The Mission” and “Babette’s Feast”. Certainly part of the problem is our culture’s determination always to see Christianity in a negative light. But at least half the problem surely is the way Christians persist in proving the culture’s judgement largely right. (Witness the current “Left Behind” phenomenon).

I’m reminded of Harry Robinson’s answer to a questions about whether Christians should watch movies: he said maybe only Christians should, since they’re the only ones who at least ought to be able to understand them.


(Loren followed up his email to me with a little P.S. - "One nice detail in the film which I forgot to mention is the determined effort by the Count to close the doors of the church against the wind (Spirit) from the outside world, at the beginning of the film, which is, I fear, all too like the church. A lot could be made of the spirit/wind connection-- including the fact that the dust of the woman's mother, which has been a kind of driving and destructive force in the lives of the woman and her daughter, gets scattered by the wind at the end.")

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