Published February 1, 2001

DIRECTOR Lasse Hallstrom has followed up last year’s success of The Cider House Rules with an adaptation of Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat. With an all- star cast, headed by Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench, Hallstrom again proves one of the most effective directors working in cinema today, coaxing great performances out of all of his actors-especially children.

Chocolat is a fable, set in 1959, in a small village in France, where Vianne (Binoche) arrives with her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) to set up a chocolate shop in a store owned by Armande (Judi Dench). It’s the season of Lent: the townspeople all dutifully attend mass each Sunday, under the watchful eye of the town’s mayor, the Comte Reynaud (Alfred Molina).

Lent is no time for chocolate, but Vianne’s variety is even more threatening: it brings life to people. Couples fall in love again, Josephine (Lena Olin) finds the courage to leave her abusive husband, even the dour Armande (Dench) actually begins to enjoy her life. It’s all too much for the mayor and the priest of the little church, Father Henri (Hugh O’Connor); so when a group of Irish river rats arrive in town with their handsome leader Roux (Johnny Depp) it’s all out war – and great fun.

[pullquote] The film has its problems. Because he has chosen to work with an international cast, Hallstrom has allowed a variety of accents to co-exist: have a French village where some people speak with an English accent, and some sound very North American, and some you’re not sure where they’re from. Johnny Depp’s attempt at an Irish accent is, well, almost acceptable. And the voice-over narration is, at times, hard to take because it points out the obvious.

But even with its problems, I loved this movie.

It addresses a conflict at the heart of much of the debate in today’s church: the relationship between religion and spirituality. While the Mayor Reynaud is to be commended for his devotion to the church and for his zeal in encouraging all his townspeople to be faithful parishioners, their religion is little more than social control, an opiate that distances people from their real lives.

Reynaud himself is an unhappy man, denying the reality of the end of his marriage; his bitterness, disguised as piety, poisons the atmosphere in the village.

Vianne, the purveyor of exotic chocolate, is the one who really connects with people. There’s a mystical quality about her. Her recipes date back centuries and come from a place far away. She’s an outsider, she comes to town with the north wind. Reynaud disapproves of everything about her: she’s a single mother, selling chocolate, and she doesn’t attend church.

She brings new life to the village, she brings hope to people who had given up, and, in the end, she brings the only real celebration of Easter.

Watch for the concluding sermon of Father Henri, where he suggests that through the humanity of Jesus we might understand faith, not as rules that tells us what not to do, but as love that enables us to reach out to include others in the divine gift of life. It’s a wonderful concluding moment in a very fine film – a treat for chocolate lovers and religious observers, and a great way to get ready for Lent. Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


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