Leap day, February 29th, is a date that only occurs, obviously, during Leap Years — an annum that is evenly divisible by 4. As we’ve done on occasion during our duo posts series, we’ll venture away from the speculative, like last month’s science-fiction, and toward the passionate. Romance being a subject that alienates a few, but for the most part brings people together. As scary as that sounds, and with that in mind, time for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to review another book-film set in parallel.
For the month of Valentine’s and wedding anniversaries (mine), we’ll once more examine a work from another culture, written in a different language, which for me will cause consternation amongst some of my remaining elders, and translated to the cinema. The 1989 debut novel by Laura Esquivel, Como agua para chocolate, known in English-speaking countries as Like Water For Chocolate. A work by a Mexican novelist, essayist, and screenwriter that became a best-seller not only in her native Mexico, but north of the border and beyond, as well.
Credit my blogging partner for suggesting this Earthy, scrumptious, and without a doubt hot-blooded tale of turn-of-the-century Mexico. Enough to excite and break the heart, too. Per our custom, my colleague Rachel will examine the pages of the book that blended poignant romance with a bittersweet wit. I’ll review its later adaptation by a Mexican filmmaker only a few “norte americanos” recognize beyond his stereotypical Hollywood acting stints1.
Get your taste buds ready and your palette cleansed, for we’ll be turning up the heat, in more ways than one, for this. The wordy one’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Born on her mother’s kitchen table, a hard life in “la cocina” during the revolución mejicana seems preordained for Tita. For as the youngest female child, De La Garza family tradition stipulates she is to remain by her mother’s side, single and unmarried as the day is long. Her obligación, besides cooking for la familia, is to take care of her mother until the lone parent’s death.
Contrary to this, falling deeply in love with the neighboring Pedro as a child, and he to her, seems a cruelty destined to be theirs for the rest of their lives. Even asking for her hand from Mamá Elena bequeaths Pedro only Tita’s sister, Rosaura. A bargain he’ll accept if only to be near the girl who keeps the food, and their love, simmering. Breaking her heart, which will have unexpected consequences for those all around her.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“If you were still in love with Pedro, you wouldn’t be marrying John.”
Having arrived to both Laura Esquivel’s novel and its cinematic distillation by Alfonso Arau for the first-time, found it offered a new perspective for my ancestors. Especially, my grandmothers (on both Mom’s and Dad’s side), who’d have been around Tita’s age. Particularly, as the Mexican Revolution, the backcloth the tale is woven into, parallels the familiar emotional and familial obstacles in the way of the lovers onscreen. Personally, it carried a haunting quality as a result.
Whether you’ve read the popular novella or not, its screen translation brims over with corresponding content, context, and morsel alike from the page2. Not surprising since the author herself wrote the screenplay for her then movie director-husband to carry her debut novel visually forth onto celluloid. Don’t want to imagine what his life would’ve been like if it had not been as successful as it was, but that’s not my concern. They’re divorced now, anyway.
Better I just worry about own 27-year-old marriage, thank you very much.
Still, Arau’s skill as a filmmaker, though only sampled fleetingly in this country care of a 2002 TV-movie remake of The Magnificent Ambersons and the supremely underappreciated A Walk in the Clouds (1995), with the figurative material has to be commended. Provided a feast for the eyes, along with the heart and stomach. For that matter, any other patch of skin this cast may have aroused in the course of its mystical, pang-filled pageant of romance and allegory.
Esquivel’s storyline not anything like what her North American neighbors would expect from any rom-com of theirs, or even a British period romance on paperback, or PBS. Perhaps only Jane Eyre comes close to the wrought of lovers kept apart. The onus of family and societal tasks put on women, too. But, nowhere near the same boiling point, or the lack of clothing. Not going confuse Guinness with Mole, here, even if they have similar coloring.
No, the story of Tita’s fight to live her own life, and who she loves, in direct opposition of her mother’s and the traditional values of the period, was ironically based on her knowledge of the kitchen. The expression of food preparation all the more its own measure of foreplay. Even so, it’s what she knows and feels that affects3 all who eat at her table. Her realm, and the depth of feeling she has for it, that far-reaching. Filled with the labors and tangs so in tune with her culture.
Esquival’s tale another that makes life worth living, and epitomized what author Don Winslow grasped with The Power of the Dog: north of the border only winners get respect; here, it’s those who can absorb punishment and still fight on.
Suffering in silence my grandmothers could do (widows who lost children), and readily expected from others in their family — luckily for me, mom’s ma was the nicer of the two.
An organically beautiful film (lensed by Steven Bernstein and Emmanuel Lubezki), and uniquely centered upon its female characters (Lumi Cavazos, Regina Torné, Yareli Arizmendi, and Claudette Maillé shine brightest). Laboring within a society then at war with itself, and each other. Even if Tita and Mamá Elena have lost love wounds, their diametrically opposed reactions (particularly her mother’s accursed turn against her daughter), called for their civil war to be in the home. And touching upon generations.
Nominated a number of times for foreign film awards, as well as on home soil, winning a handful for production and acting (for leads Lumi and Mario Iván Martínez, and Arau’s superb direction) in festivals worldwide, it remains almost as beloved as its source novel. The little film that could, performed much of its magic by framing the actor’s facial expressions, and body language, in contrast to what northern neighbors expected. Pretty good for a Mexican character actor only genre movie fans readily recognize…
Juan: “Joan Wilder… Joan Wilder? *The* Joan Wilder?”
[lowering gun, opening door and walking out]
“You are Joan Wilder, the novelist?”
Joan Wilder: “Well, yes, I am.”
Juan: “I read your books! I read all your books!”
…and who’s gone on to produce and direct a few more than worthy films. Keenly with this stellar effort that didn’t come off in any sense as “cookie-cutter.” Doing so with a cast of faces atypical to what Hollywood has long interpreted as “mainstream” (which yesterday’s award program tried to address). Moreover, it was those same qualities that truly made it a spiritually symbolic work. Arau’s film miraculously pulled off the same extraordinary feat by the closing titles, at least for this reader-viewer, as did the last page of his ex-wife’s novel.
What can I say? Damn allergies!