Page 19


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Revolucion en la cocina BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE Directed by Alfonso Arau LAURA ESQUTVEL DOES THE cooking in the family, according to her hus. band, Alfonso Arau. He does the film making. After the publication of Esquivel’s first novel, Como Agua Para Chocolate \(Like Water in which, as in Babette’s Feast, cooking is a metaphor for, and extension of, politics, sex and even nutrition Arau determined to reheat it for film. Budgeted at $3 million, Como Agua was the most expensive project in the history of Mexican cinema, whose average release costs $300,000. It has already become the most commercially successful film ever produced in Latin America, enabling Arau and Esquivel to retire the second mortgage that helped finance their screen adaptation. Like Water For Chocolate has won awards at festivals from Tokyo to Toronto and, even in limited run, has already drawn more norteamericanos to the theater than any other foreign film of 1993. The English translation of Esquivel’s novel has sold so well since its debut last October that Doubleday has also published a Spanish edition for the United States market. “You can’t change tacos for enchiladas,” says a character in Like Water For Chocolate, but the Mexican work is a crossover hit, like Perrier for Water. South of the Rio Grande, hot chocolate is made by boiling water and then adding cocoa. Iri the proverbial phrase that Esquivel chose as title for her novel, water that is ready for chocolate is in a state of advanced agitation, of being on the verge. Set in 1910, on a prosperous hacienda on the northern plains of Coahuila and later in Eagle Pass, Como Agua evokes a world of incipient revolution, sexual arousal and gastronomic ecstasy. Though its British publisher rendered the novel’s title as Like Water For Hot Chocolate, Doubleday opted for the literal, if arcane, Like Water for Chocolate. In Italy, it was trans Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas in San Antonio. lated as Sweet Like Chocolate, while the French savor it as Bitter Chocolate. The Japanese version is known as The Legend of Rose Petal Sauce. Whatever the title, Arau translated his wife’s literary fantasy into lush visual images. In each if the 22 languages in which it has been published, Esquivel’ s novel tells the Cinderella story of how Tita de la Garza overcomes domestic oppression through culinary magic. Widowed Mama Elena commands Tita, the youngest and prettiest of her three daughters, to care for her and never marry. She falls in forbidden love with a handsome neighbor named Pedro Muzquiz, who marries the eldest daughter, Rosaura, merely in order to be near his beloved Tita. Middle daughter Gertrudis defies tradition and taboo by riding off, naked, with a revolutionary. “This goddamn revolution degenerated into a government,” complained Pancho Villa about the 1910 uprising he helped lead and that serves as the time frame for Arau’s film. During a telephone conversation from Mexico City, the producer/director told The Texas Observer that military activity lurking at the margins of his story “represents the, men’s revolution. The main revolution is Tita’s, the interior revolution, the more important one.” Esquivel, an accomplished screenwriter, wrote the script, but Arau admits to having felt apprehensions about any man’s ability to direct Like Water For Chocolate. “I decided not to make my film but to make Laura’s film,” he notes. “I put my ego aside. What I did was to let loose my feelings, my ‘feminine’ sensibilities.” Arau explains that he worked closely with the women in the film including Lumi Cavazos as Tita, Regina Tome as Mama Elena, Yareli Arizmendi as Rosaura, and Claudette Maine as Gertrudis. Deliberately challenging the tyranny of machismo, Arau insists that the transformation of personal relationships heralded in his film is much more profound than the political cataclysm of 1910. He prefers to call Like Water For Chocolate a “feminine” film rather than a “feminist” one, claiming that the former is more advanced than the latter. “Women lost something in competing with men,” contends Arau. “This film proposes going back not in a reactionary way but as a spiral. It attempts to recover something essential that has been lost.” Though feminism rejects the contention that a woman’ s place is in the pantry, Like Water For Chocolate forcefully restores its principal woman to the kitchen. Yet her pots and pans prove instruments of enormous power. Tita’s recipe for quail in rose petal sauce transforms everyone’s life. If an army indeed travels on its stomach, then the chef commands the troops more effectively than their titular commander-in-chief. Arau notes that each of the three de la Garza sisters represents a different option: Rosaura assumes the traditional female role of wife and mother; Gertrudis rebels and succeeds, as a general, within the historically masculine world; while Tita enacts “an interior revolution.” Though Arau is patently partial to Tita, he observes that Gertrudis’ military career is no fable “There were many, many figures like her. Mexican women are the only women in history who actually accompanied their men into the line of fire.” Easier to swallow is Arau’s claim that Like Water For Chocolate is “a humanistic, female, local and universal film.” Because of its suc.cess, he has been receiving and considering several offers for future work in Hollywood. “I consider myself an actor,” says the veteran of performances on both sides of the border. He credits a part in Sam Pecicinpah’s The Wild Bunch with opening his career to roles in English, but he also complains that it cast him in ethnic stereotype. After John Landis’ Three Amigos, Arau stopped taking those parts. “I haven’t received anything interesting since.” His current directing project augurs considerable interest. Regina, for which Laura Esquivel wrote the screenplay from a book by Antonio Velasco Pina, recounts the life of a woman raised by lamas in Tibet who became a leader of the 1968 Mexican student rebellion, before dying at the age of 20. Arau hopes to attract the backing to shoot this film in English. 18 JUNE 4, 1993