Saturday, March 19, 2011


contributed by Rebecca

I recently re-watched the movie Chocolat to see whether it would lend me any new insights heading into this Lenten season. I didn’t feel able to summarize it with an adequate review, but came across 2 juxtaposed movie reviews on Ron Reed’s Soul Food Movies blog that each shed some light, from different angles. I thought I’d share an excerpt from both:

From Why those faithful who fast aren't simply chocolate soldiers Frederica Mathewes-Green, Beliefnet

. . . "Chocolat" blunders into a small French village in the spring of 1959 without a clue as to the meaning and power of Lenten sacrifice. It would not have taken exhaustive research to discover that Lent is a period of grieving for the ways humans mess up the world and hurt each other. It is a time that Christians turn inward and ask in the quiet of their hearts, "How have I been part of the problem?" In admitting these faults to God in the presence of a priest they gain profound peace and release, and the power to change their lives.

Since many of these sins are due to lack of self-control -- lashing out at someone in anger, stealing something on an impulse -- Christians do exercises to gain self-control, much as a weightlifter hoists barbells. Delicious things that might be enjoyed at any time are set aside for a few weeks, to make the willpower muscle stronger. Resisting chocolate today can help you resist an angry outburst tomorrow.

This simple concept is totally lost on the makers of "Chocolat." They're not alone; spiritual self-denial in any form is Moon Maid talk to Americans. Why is it so hard for us to understand the concept of spiritual discipline? The practice is present in some form in every world religion, yet we can fathom nothing but bigger, faster, fatter, more. Throughout the ages a universal principle has persisted that the person who seeks to enter the vast presence of God must do so by making himself smaller. Yet in America, dessert comes on a plate big enough for four. And America religion better follow suit, and promise a good time for all, all the time. . . . Yet just about any major religion gives the opposite advice. Self-discipline is a universal, even though the details of, and rationale for, these self-limitations vary widely. . . .

Loren Wilkinson on "CHOCOLAT"

I think it’s time to say a good word or two for Chocolat. . . . All of the bad things which have been said about the film are undoubtedly true (the silliness of the faint French accents in a French town, and the Irish accent in the male hunk, etc.) True also is the complete misunderstanding about what Lent ought to be, the characteristic negative stereotyping of Christians, the vacuous spirituality of the romanticized Mayan alternative, the glorification of self-indulgence, etc.

So what’s good to say about the film? I was pretty upset about the portrayal of the church and of Christianity till very near the end--but by the end found I was able to forgive almost all of the film’s flaws for two reasons, one pretty obvious, the other more subtle.

The obvious reason is that all too often the church DOES act this way towards outsiders who don’t fit in, and all too often DOES have a pretty gnostic view of pleasure, and of the whole material world, which has surfaced all too often throughout the church, both Catholic and Protestant versions. (Consider, for example, the way we have almost completely severed the “communion meal” from any reminder that it was part of not just a meal, but a feast.) It’s pretty obvious that the film is making the point that the chocolate shop is doing what the church and Christians ought to be doing: listening to people’s problems, meeting their needs, going out of their way to help when people are in trouble. Ask yourself: which is most like the church and Christian community in general as you have experienced it: the church as portrayed in the film, or the chocolate shop? In this context, it’s no small point--and an enormous reversal of expectations--when the person who points out that the church ought to behave with embrace rather than exclusion is the Catholic priest, the official voice of the church in the film (not the exceedingly messed up Count). And he does it not by denying the divinity of Christ (he affirms indirectly) but by drawing attention to the fact of Christ’s humanity, and his love.

The more subtle point is that the climax of the film--the Count’s attempt to destroy the chocolate display, and his resulting binge--is presented as a direct result of his prayer before the crucifix. Superficially we might conclude that Jesus is telling him to go break up the chocolate idols. In fact of course the Count’s action leads to the beginning of his transformation--not, I think we can conclude, into a chocolate binging pagan, but into a Christian who knows something of how Christ welcomes the stranger. . . .

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