Monday, August 20, 2007


CHOCOLAT (2000, USA/UK, Lasse Hallström, Robert Nelson Jacobs screenplay, Joanne Harris novel)
We can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create. And who we include.

Like its namesake, a guilty pleasure but a pleasure nonetheless: this not particularly nourishing but undeniably yummy exemplar of the faux-foreign Miramax product tasted a tad Euro-Disney but packed art-houses and boosted concession sales – and, surprisingly, gave movie-goers with an appetite for Soul Food a thing or two to chew on.

Juliette Binoche is delish as a widow who blows into a repressive but picturesque French town during Lent and breathes chocolate-scented life into the repressed Catholic villagers: Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss and Johnny Depp up the gorgeousness factor, Judi Dench provides acting cred, and there’s cool gypsy music and swell photography.

Frederica Mathewes-Green voiced and amplified my qualms in a brilliant essay where she pitches a script idea for SIZZLE: a sexy, carnivorous Yankee sets up his grill in a joyless town in India and introduces those poor, misguided Hindus into the joys of thick steaks, tender filets and racks of barbecued ribs. She points out that SIZZLE – just like the film it parodies – is “stupendously ignorant of the spiritual tradition of the community it’s presuming to chastise. Towering ignorance combines with invincible self-righteousness to form an impenetrable shield of condescension.” It’s facile to criticize Christianity for pleasure denial on the basis of Lent, the one season in the church year when believers undertake a few weeks of voluntary self-control to strengthen spiritual muscles that might help check our all-too-human tendencies “to mess up the world and hurt each other. Resisting chocolate today can help you resist an angry outburst tomorrow – a simple concept that is totally lost on the makers of CHOCOLAT.” Or on American consumer culture as a whole, where the very idea of any sort of spiritual discipline is the worst kind of heresy.

But I also like Loren Wilkinson’s characteristic “yes but” counter-response: while half the problem may be “our culture’s determination always to see Christianity in a negative light,” the other half “surely is the way Christians persist in proving the culture’s judgment largely right.” He points out 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,” including “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.” Insightfully, Wilkinson also asks whether the Count’s final transformation might not be a direct answer to his own prayers, and with an ear tuned to the poetry of the piece points out the Count’s determined effort to close the doors of the church against the wind (Spirit?) from the outside world “which is, I fear, all too like the church,” and “the fact that the dust of the woman’s mother, a driving and destructive force in the lives of the woman and her daughter, gets scattered by the wind at the end.”

You know what I love best about this film? The way such a tasty but seemingly unsubstantial dessert can yield so rich a feast of conversation, spiritual insights and theological considerations. All depends who you invite to the table.


The Mathewes-Green and Wilkinson articles are here
The dvd is available at Videomatica

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