Cultures across the world often express deep love for their traditions through cuisine. The idea that heavy emotions from someone’s personal life can be transferred from ingredients to table is quite a seductive one and Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate expresses this in the most amorous yet heartbreaking ways. This romance film draws the parallels of familial relationships with a passion for cooking in an absolutely beautiful fashion as Arau takes his characters from tragedy to tragedy in early 20th century Mexico. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Laura Esquivel, the story’s central theme of desire pulses through its script and even in just the simple shots of food, one can easily tell how much passion was a part of this project. Arau’s tantalizing film is truly one of the best about the dangers and wonders of breaking tradition, all executed through the lens of its magical realist story.
Since they were children, Tita (Lumi Cavazos) and Pedro (Marco Leonardi) have been in love and have wanted more than anything to get married and start a family. However, Tita’s mother Elena (Regina Torné) forbids her from marrying due to family tradition and her sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) ends up marrying Pedro. The emotional heartbreak that Tita experiences is channeled into her cooking while she fights to discover the true passion within herself.
Breaking tradition is not an easy thing to accept for many generations of Mexican families. Although this film revolves around food and the means of expression through cooking, romance and the desire shared between Tita and Pedro is what truly fuels the story. Spanning many years and over the course of other marriages, their relationship carried on. Tita is forbidden from marrying Pedro because she must take care of her mother until she passes but they never stopped fighting to be together, whether it be in secret or in direct opposition to Rosaura’s wishes. Despite the many tragedies that the two had to go through, including losing parents, grandparents, and children, their love prevailed and Arau does a phenomenal job of making his audience root for them through the relatable pain. Like Water for Chocolate might appear a tad cheesy on the surface, as it does share similar qualities with soap operas but the drama that these characters experience sets the scene beautifully for the introduction of the food elements.
The performances throughout this film from its two leads Cavazos and Leonardi are excellent and the chemistry they share is palpable within their first scene together. However, the most impressive part of Arau and Esquivel’s storytelling is in the way that food arguably plays the most critical role. The many scenes of cooking and preparing of traditional Mexican dishes almost becomes a character in itself, to the point that it feels cathartic for the audience to watch Tita pour her heart into the food. The direst emotions are brought to the screen through the savory visual imagery and it is very obvious how much Tita puts her soul out for others to taste. Arua physicalizes the food in this film in such a way that makes just the mere appearance of the home cooking as melancholy as these characters often were. It is also compelling to see the relationship between Tita and her mother develop and how badly it affected her cooking as the ghost of her mother kept appearing to discourage her from pursuing her true love. Like Water for Chocolate has a magical realist property to it that is such a clever choice in storytelling by Arau. The physical reactions that occur in people due to Tita’s emotional food are dramatized but serve their purpose in making this movie a bit mystical. Arau’s supernatural narrative choices might appear a bit ridiculous upon first viewing but they prove to really be the only way he is able to express what Tita goes through. Accompanied by the gorgeously personal cinematography from Steven Bernstein and Emmanuel Lubezki, this story is brilliant at making anyone feel as warm and content as the delicious food presented throughout the film.
Like Water for Chocolate is one of the best representations of early 20th century Mexican culture that has been put to screen. Along with these often unexpected truths of their culture, however, comes a beautiful romance story that proves love’s flame never flickers. Food plays such a critical part in the story of nearly every family and through Arau’s use of imagery to really drive home this theme, the food on screen comes to life and becomes just as, if not more, delectable than the sizzling romance between Tita and Pedro.