At its basest level Like Water For Chocolate is a typically cinematic love story. Tita and Pedro are in love yet it takes numerous obstacles and the course of the film until they can be united in time for the final reel. From this angle it could be denounced as a strictly conventional work, but then it is also much more than that. Indeed, despite a running time of less than two hours, Like Water For Chocolate is decidedly epic in its outlook. It takes in three generations of womenfolk, spans forty years and traces the divergent – though always connected – love stories of three sisters during the time of the Mexican revolution.
Directed by Alfonso Arau (perhaps best known to western audiences an actor, particularly the chief villain in Romancing the Stone) in 1993, Like Water For Chocolate came before the current buzz for Latin American cinema. At the time British cinemas were experiencing world cinema in a more rarefied form. Certainly, France had a good showing, as always, but otherwise it was difficult to trace national movements and trends as films would crop up seemingly at random (or rather owing to Academy Award nominations). And yet Like Water For Chocolate didn’t feel isolated, rather it seamlessly fitted into that range of food-based movies which generally proved popular with more discerning viewers: Babette’s Feast for Denmark, Taiwan’s Eat Drink Man Woman and, depending on tastes, Japan’s Tampopo.
Indeed, this is a warm, inviting work and one which also, to indulge in the various food metaphors which permeate the voice-over and dialogue, is decidedly overripe. The opening scenes capture not only childbirth, but also infidelity and death, the result being a heightened melodramatic pitch which Arau is at pains to keep throughout. Certainly, the Mexican revolution proves a suitable backdrop to such events, plus Like Water For Chocolate throws in touches of magic realism as well as those of the fairy tale (the sisters’ mother is the familiar stern matriarch). More importantly, such a tone plays extremely well courtesy of an enthusiastic, mostly female cast, whilst the sheer weight of dramatic occurrences – enough births, marriages and deaths to sustain your average soap opera for at least six months – means that the film is never dull.
Not that Like Water For Chocolate is a particularly great film, however. Its mainstream sensibilities mean that there is neither exploration of the revolution’s political dimensions, nor the sisters’ respective sexual politics. Moreover, Arau’s direction also offers up its own difficulties. On the one hand he can be charmingly offbeat (Tita knits whenever she cries resulting in a blanket of ridiculously oversized proportions), yet he also falls into a number of melodramatic traps. Most obvious is the hackneyed manner in which he crosscuts ever happy moment with a sad moment and vice versa, and there’s a similar familiarity to a number of his other devices.
That said, Like Water For Chocolate is still a highly appealing work, which only makes it a greater shame that Arrow’s DVD handling is decidedly below par. The film has been transferred from an aging print that shows clear signs of dirt and damage whilst also lacking the lustre which Arau’s images require. Moreover, it has also been cropped to a 1.33:1 ratio whilst the English subtitles are burnt-in. The original Spanish soundtrack fares a little better – here in its original stereo incarnation – but also shows signs of damage. Rounding off the package, and cementing the disappointment, are the paltry extras: a gallery of production stills and the theatrical trailer which promoted its UK screenings.
Anthony Nield has reviewed Arrow's Region 0 release of Like Water For Chocolate, Alfonso Arau's hugley enjoyable Mexican melodrama which sadly arrives on disc in less than satisfactory form.