Her name is Tita (Lumi Cavazos), and she’s quiet, nurturing, and pretty in a homespun sort of way. She never, ever talks back or says an unkind word. And what a cook! Her dream: to marry the man she loves, have babies, and spend the rest of her life in the kitchen.

No, Like Water for Chocolate is not a south-of-the-border remake of The Donna Reed Show. Set on a Mexican ranch near the turn of the century, it’s a glazed romantic-erotic fantasy that celebrates the intermingled powers of love, imagination, and food. That these are all abundantly good things is beyond dispute. Yet Like Water for Chocolate is a mushy, passive piece of moviemaking. The film presents its heroine as a creature of simple, earthy desires — St. Tita of the Divinely Minced Onion — and then sets her up against a spiteful witch of a mother (Regina Torne) who won’t allow her to marry the man she adores. Can the power of love triumph over Victorian repression? Do we really need to watch this dilemma again?

It has been said that Like Water for Chocolate holds out a special appeal for women because of its ”poetic” imagery and suggestive moods (as if men didn’t respond to these things). In truth, it’s a rather literal-minded mood piece: The golden-brown cinematography is treacly and monotonous, and director Alfonso Arau relies on voice-over narration to tell us what he should be showing. Nevertheless, the movie does seem to have tapped a primal fantasy for many women moviegoers. With its cowlike Cinderella heroine pining for forbidden love while she slaves over her bewitching recipes (and knits a shawl as long as a city block), Like Water for Chocolate offers old-fashioned romantic masochism-Harlequin pulp-dressed up in a magical-realist veneer. It makes being a happy homemaker seem wondrous again. B-

Like Water for Chocolate

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