The setting is a sleepy French village around 1960. Everything was nice and neat and orderly. The town is run by a benevolent despot of a mayor (Alfred Molina), who also takes attendance as the head usher at the Catholic church every Sunday. His wife is always traveling abroad.
He's like a fussy old Puritan, insisting that everything be decent and orderly, and scared to death that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.
Enter Juliette Binochet, and her daughter, blown in by the North Wind. She opens a chocolate store, just as Lent is beginning. The poor residents act like they've never seen a piece of candy in their lives. They are told to avoid the sinful enticements of this vagabond woman with her bastard child. And the whole town acts as if she had leprosy.
But there are some cracks in the armor of the buttoned-up bastion of self-discipline. The old widow who has rented them the place (Judi Dench) is irascible, mainly because her daughter won't let her see her grandson because the widow is a "bad influence." But they can drink chocolate together at the shop while his mother is getting her hair done.
A frightened villager whose husband abuses her (Lena Olin) finds more than a refuge; she discovers that she can be considered useful and helpful to another. A lonely old man finds a safe place where he can court a friendly widow, who's been grieving for her husband who was killed in the late war -- not the Second, but the First World War.
And the "river rats," who appear on the edge of town like Gypsies, discover that the Chocolate Shop is also the only place in town where they are welcome. And their leader (Johnny Depp) takes an interest in the bright and cheerful and pretty proprietress.
The church gets involved in this because the very young priest, who is found singing "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog" while weeding the church lawn, is leaned upon by the crusty mayor to castigate this new hedonism. His sermons are even edited for him! And the church is used as a vehicle to denounce the new "immorality" of people who only want to introduce to these hard-working villagers the simple pleasures of eating well, dancing with abandon and accepting people who are not like them.
Of course it's a parable. And we all know that it's going to turn out like "Pleasantville," where everything that was in black and white eventually was in vivid color because people were allowed to let loose their natural desires.
The moral of "Chocolat," of course, is the current epitome of Hollywood political correctness: Let people do what they want and be who they are, as long as they aren't hurting anybody. Don't set standards to which everyone must conform. That sounds like freedom, but it also raises the question of whether there ought to be any standards at all. Is churchgoing then no longer considered valuable? What about the church? The Bible? The institution of marriage?
It's easy to argue that an abused woman ought to be able to escape her marriage vows (especially after the abusing husband is painfully demonstrated to be unrehabilitated). But how then does society control the freedom to divorce from becoming an alarming 50 percent divorce rate?
Children who are born out of wedlock ought not be ridiculed for something that is not their fault. But how has the lack of societal stricture or censure contributed to the current reality of millions of "illegitimate" children? Is that what's good for the nurture of children?
It's easy to criticize church people as uptight, narrow-minded, hypocritical kill-joys. But is our culture better off, now that the church's influence has waned, without any agreed-upon values? If everyone decides what is right for them as individuals, then there is no longer any sense of what is wrong or right for the community as a whole. Is this the best way to nurture God's people?
"Chocolat" is about the good guys -- the good-looking, reasonable, fun-loving, kindly folks -- overthrowing a regime which was haughty, overbearing, imperious, controlling and ignorant. The question is not whether their way would be more fun for everyone. The question is, "Now that they are in charge of setting the tempo for the community, how will they lead?" And exactly where will they find that they have to reconstruct a moral code that they so assiduously and gleefully eroded?
I have just returned from the film, "Chocolat" and decided to read the comments by Ron Salfen after seeing the film. In his review he mentioned the word "parable" and this triggered for me the many years old film made for the New York World Fair called "The Parable."
I found in "Chocolat" a flashback to the Christ figure who was available to people where they were in life. The candy lady reached out to hurting people and tried to give them the candy that was best for each of them. In this act of giving candy (Communion) people spent a moment to reflect on their own lives more in depth. They felt better about "their lot in life" having eaten and had a caring person reach out to them. People found acceptance and grace from the candy lady where others only judged and rejected and tried to get others to conform to the "right mold."
For me it appeared that the "non-Christian " candy lady was in fact the most Christ-like person in the film. The gospel is often best acted out rather than proclaimed by a robot priest under the domination of rigid morality.
GEORGE H. LOWER I was intrigued by the review of the movie "Chocolat." As the reviewer states, it's a parable -- and a very powerful one. But the real issue this film addresses is that of the hypocrisy of devout legalistic religion that strains to remove splinters from others' eyes, while ignoring house-beams of darkness in one's own. I did not perceive the movie to be teaching that "churchgoing is no longer considered valuable." I heard it underscoring God's frequent questioning whether mere outward ritual conformity without the Spirit of Christ is to be considered valuable. . . .
DONALD HAWTHORNE The review of "Chocolat" might have been a lot sweeter if the reviewer had settled for the message of the parable rather than asking for more. When I first saw the previews, I thought that here would be another cheap shot at religion. But contrary to my expectations, the woman in her chocolate shop is very much like the good Samaritan, or perhaps the less-than-honest steward. Jesus purposefully chose characters who would test the limits of his audience and challenge a stability long hardened into rigidity. It's a delightful movie with a powerful lesson for those who claim the title of "moral guardians of our declining culture." . . . Paul might have written the script when he said, "Let me show you a more excellent way." In the end, love casts out all fear, and while some may uneasily miss the rules and boundaries, love is sufficient after all.
THOMAS P. EGGEBEEN
Ron Salfen is pastor, Westminster church, Dallas.