Alfonso Arau & Laura Esquivel's
Like Water for Chocolate
By Jen Johans
*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

When I was twelve years old, my aunt recommended I read Laura Esquivel’s
Like Water for
.  She hesitated for a brief moment after praising the book and then added, “Well,
you’re mature.”  Always eager to follow-up on artistic recommendations, not to mention
curious as to the source of her hesitation, I picked up a copy of the book at a local mall and
began reading.  After only a few pages into the novel, I remember having the sneaking
suspicion that perhaps I shouldn’t be reading such a sensual book but I was already
hooked and wanted to see how the story ended.  In retrospect, the novel wasn’t terribly well
written-- Esquivel seemed to season the events set in the early 1900’s with fairly current
ideas, dialogue and attitudes, making her tale a bit anachronistic. Originally a
screenwriter, Esquivel suffered from the same fate of people in her profession when making
the transition from cinema’s show-me medium to the tell-me medium of literature, making
her book a pleasant and even at times passionately poetic shell of a novel.  I feel it was
always destined to do better in film and this could be because Esquivel’s cinematic
collaborator, Alfonso Arau, was also her husband and together they knew the kind of tale
they wanted to tell.  Magic realism plays a large role in translating the story of Tita, a young
Mexican woman who sublimates her passion for true love Pedro through various
intoxicating recipes.  While in the hands of someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez-- the
grandaddy of magic realism-- this technique works better in prose form, however
cinematically in the case of Arau/Esquivel, it becomes something quite beautiful to behold.  
In this essay, I intend to analyze my view of
Like Water for Chocolate as a successful work
of magic realism while also interweaving the ways it handles family duty, gender roles, and
romantic love.

In the most recent nonfiction works of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, both
writers cited the Latin American culture of their upbringing as the primary reason they
found themselves writing using a magic realist approach.  Allende in particular stated that
her daily life was so filled with magic, paradoxes and fascinating tales of the past that it
easily lent itself to her work and never once considered writing without a little fantastic
embellishment for the sake of the tale.  One of the things that I found so successful about
Like Water for Chocolate is the seamless way that elements of magic realism were woven
into the seemingly real world in which the characters inhabited, thereby making the film’s
break with traditional narrative conventions perfectly natural.  One must be willing to
suspend disbelief in dealing with magic realist films and novels and I was a perfectly
willing participant.  Overall, I must say that I’ve never been one to prefer fantasy to reality
and even as a young film buff, I found myself favoring the films of directors like Martin
Scorsese, Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh to the escapist fare relished by my peers.  In
fact, I’m one of the only people I know that doesn’t enjoy
The Wizard of Oz.  This being
said, I enjoyed the type of fantasy utilized in
Like Water for Chocolate because it’s only
partial and actually enhanced the real-life situation of the frustrations of love.  In reality,
one could consider the idea of falling in love fantastic and irrational to begin with so it
almost seems logical that it’s depicted magically in cinema.  In the film, Tita and Pedro are
desperately in love and their attraction begins with a series of intense looks at one another
through the use of reverse angle shots, prompting Pedro to propose to Tita.  His proposal is
staged like
Romeo and Juliet in the way it places her upstairs and him on the ground,
making a possible homage to the famous balcony scene and introducing the idea that the
two are star-crossed lovers.  Instead of celebrating the happy union, Tita’s mother Mama
Elena forbids their marriage because of a ridiculously selfish family tradition which states
that as the youngest child, Tita must never marry and instead devote her life to taking care
of her mother.  Not willing to break tradition, compromise or listen to Tita’s opinion that
this rule is unjust, her mother instead offers Pedro the opportunity to marry Tita’s older
sister Rosaura.  Jumping at the chance to be near Tita for life, Pedro impulsively agrees to
the marriage and Tita takes out her misery in the kitchen with deliciously creative recipes
being the only way she can express her true feelings.

The kitchen is Tita’s domain and has been since her ironic birth atop a kitchen table.  In
fact, in a magical opening scene, the narrator explains that Tita cried in her mother’s
womb when onions were chopped and then she was born by a “torrential storm of tears”
that were later swept up as salt and kept in a forty pound sack.  From this day forward, Tita
finds she is the happiest in the kitchen with their cook Nacha, who in all the ways that
matter is more of a mother to her than her own flesh and blood.  After the wedding of Pedro
and Rosaura is scheduled, Tita cries into the cake batter and those who eat the cake after
the cruel ceremony find themselves strangely affected as they begin  weeping openly and
yearning for their true love the same way that Tita yearns for Pedro.  Instead of simply
telling us that Tita is heartbroken, it is much more effective to use this magical approach
to illustrate the situation and Alfonso Arau successfully uses all of the tools available to
him as a filmmaker-- most notably in regards to the lush, sensual cinematography.  In yet
another scene of Tita’s sublimation through cooking, after Pedro gives Tita a bouquet of
roses under the guise that it celebrates her position of household cook, her mother
instructs her to throw them out.  Not wanting to part with a gift of the heart-- roses
especially being symbolic of passionate love-- Tita clasps the flowers to her chest and blood
from the thorns trickles onto the petals.  She decides to make quails in rose petal sauce and
over the course of the meal it becomes obvious that it’s having quite a sexual effect at the
dining table, thus illustrating that Tita is using food in order to communicate her feelings
for Pedro.  While Mama Elena and Rosaura seem to object to the “taste,” Tita and Pedro
appear visibly aroused and their lovemaking is synthesized in the body of her sister
Gertrudis who becomes so hot (a nod to the title’s reference of the temperature of
someone’s physical attraction to someone else) that she strips off her clothing and runs for
the outside shower, which promptly catches on fire.  The smell of roses emitted from
Gertrudis is so strong that it attracts a nearby revolutionary soldier who gallops by and
pulls her on his saddle, disappearing into the night.  To me, this scene is meant to do a few
things-- on the surface it is an-over-the-top explanation of the magic realist element of
Tita’s cooking but it also serves as a warning for the casual viewer, jokingly saying, “Leave
logic at the door; if you’re not with us by now, you won’t like this movie.”

The level of family duty enforced on Tita by her cruel mother in the film is enough to have
the viewer cursing back at the screen.  Mama Elena, often dressed in severe, repressed
attire, is repeatedly shown as incredibly selfish although there is a glimpse at the
possibility of humanity lurking underneath the surface when we see the way she briefly
cries for runaway Gertrudis.  In this scene we realize that she loves her illegitimate
daughter partly because it represents her own true love for a man who died before she
married the father of Rosaura and Tita.  It is upsetting that given her own heartbroken
past, instead of not wanting to see the same thing happen to her daughter, Mama Elena
remains bitter and stagnant in her adherence to family tradition.  When she tells Nacha
that Tita will never marry, she is wearing black mourning clothes for her husband and
holding the two hands of Rosaura and Gertrudis.  This shot shows her single-mindedness
and physically represents how she stands in the way of the happiness of others.  In another
scene, Chencha the servant girl states, “When it comes to breaking things up, your mother
is a master.”  While one can respect Tita’s devotion and obedience to duty, it’s hard to
watch from the perspective of a twenty-first century audience member and the scene in
which she asserts her independence seems long overdue.  Sibling duty can also be
examined in the film as it’s hard to like the character of Rosaura after she marries her
sister’s boyfriend; her engagement having occurred on Tita’s birthday, no less.  Of course,
we realize that she had as little choice in the matter as Tita did but the fact that she
silently goes through with it is insulting to the idea of sibling loyalty and later she actually
tells Tita that it was wrong of her to think she could have a boyfriend.  It is interesting that
throughout the film, Rosaura is likened to the character of her mother and even wears the
same type of cameo at the base of her throat and disturbingly tells Tita that her youngest
daughter will also not be allowed to marry.  Tita enacts unintentional revenge-by-entree on
her vicious sister by wishing that she hadn’t said those words, thereby causing Rosaura
immense gastrointestinal distress that eventually leads to the death which allows her
daughter to marry.  In another scene, Rosaura even goes as far as seeking to replace Tita in
the kitchen on the day after she and her husband dispassionately and mechanically
consummate their marriage, three months into the union.  The idea of romantic duty is
also troubling as throughout the film, Pedro and Tita reminded me of two kids who sit
inside all day taking turns asking each other what to do.  While Pedro’s decision to marry
Rosaura is supposed to be romantic, I agreed with Tita in the scene in which she told him it
was a mistake, however I disagreed with her response that he should have simply
kidnapped her.  I guess back then, men were the ones who were supposed to make the
romantic decisions but Tita is equally to blame.  Even though both characters felt a strong
romantic connection to one another, neither fled from their other duties as husband, sister
or daughter to explore anything other than a forbidden love from afar until finally their
passion was so great that it killed them at the end of the film.

Like Water for Chocolate gender roles are mostly stereotypical, with the partial
exceptions of Gertrudis and Dr. Brown.  In the first few minutes of the film, Tita’s father
Juan is being hassled by other males since he’d fathered another girl and they ask him
when he will ever do it right and produce a son.  Also, one parent states, “It’s another girl,
what will we do with another girl?”  The film offers two solutions and while I’ll admit is
probably indicative of its time, it leads the viewer to believe that the kitchen and the
bedroom are women’s only domains.  In fact, Esquivel went as far as to begin her novel with
her quote, “To the table or to bed.  You must come when you are bid” and something tells
me, she wasn’t picturing her male characters when she wrote those words, unless she was
imagining the ones who did the bidding.  The novel also seemed to dwell on the troubling
revelation that Tita’s sexual desirability is dependent upon the fact that she is an amazing
cook as she doubts Pedro’s love for her when he stops praising her meals.  While, of course,
the deliciousness of her food is indicative of her love for him, it’s still a bit disturbing that
Tita is nearly always shown as desirable when participating in stereotypically womanly
activities such as preparing meals and magically breast-feeding and nurturing his son
Roberto.  Also, time and time again, the film’s narration calls attention to the fact that it
was the lustful male gaze that transformed Tita from a virginal girl to a voluptuous woman,
making numerous references to the heat and boiling insinuated by the film’s title.  The
virgin/whore complex rears its ugly head in two subtle snippets of dialogue.  First, a
woman tells sexually active Tita that she’d think she was pregnant if she didn’t know Tita
was “a good girl.  Secondly it’s revealed that after Gertrudis ran away she began working in
a brothel, as if to imply that that’s the only way a sexually liberated woman could be
satisfied.  Overall, men are the more powerful characters throughout the film as they are
the ones who grab the women onto horses and are so filled with testosterone that it’s
laughably said, the revolutionaries are able to impregnate a woman with one look.  It is
refreshing that after Gertrudis returns from her various adventures, she is a ranking
revolutionary soldier and has the ability to order men around-- even going so far as making
them cook-- and without this balance, the film may not have played as well to feminists.  
Although unfortunately (like Holly Hunter’s character Ada in another excellent but
pseudo-feminist film,
The Piano) Gertrudis had to prostitute herself in the process, her
character finally proves that women can be independent and have positions of power
without enlisting the aid of diapers or rolling pins.

As Gertrudis provides a nice gender balance for Tita, Dr. Brown provides the same for
Pedro, being a refreshingly non-stereotypical male character.  After learning of the death
by starvation of Roberto and being once again tormented by her mother’s cruel demands,
Tita both stands up for herself and breaks down emotionally.  Surprisingly it is Dr. Brown
who appears on the scene to nurture her back to health, the way a traditionally female
character would.  While he is shown earlier in the film mentioning how maternally
beautiful Tita looked holding a baby (keeping with the gender stereotypes), he seems to
become most attracted to her after learning that she delivered a child without medical
training.  While this feat is still very female, at least she seemed to garner both his
romantic and intellectual appreciation without the use of food.  Overall, Dr. Brown is a
goodhearted man who is even shown at one point brushing Tita’s hair in a scene, making
me fall in love with the sensitive kindness and generosity of Brown’s character and I
personally believe that Tita does as well.  As rare as I’m sure it is to love two people at the
same time, I really do feel that Tita loved both Pedro and Dr. Brown.  While she did love
them differently as they are two very different men, I believe that it was genuine and the
more I think about it, the more I wonder if Laura Esquivel may have used Jane Austen’s
Sense and Sensibility character of Colonel Brandon as a model for John Brown.  Brown,
like Brandon, is older, patient, mature, loyal and while he isn’t instantly attractive-- to use
a lesson from
Cyrano de Bergerac-- he becomes increasingly so as we discover more about
his good nature.  Pedro, on the other hand, while being obviously attractive, is young and at
times could be indecisive, impatient, overly immature and jealous.  While of course, the
law of happy-endings dictates that even in a story such as
Like Water for Chocolate which
you know will end tragically, Pedro and Tita must finally get together-- however briefly-- in
the end.  They had the idea of forbidden love on their side which cinematically, I suppose,
is something much more intriguing than two kind hearts taking to one another like John
and Tita.  Though it does lessen the pain that his son ends up marrying her niece, I did feel
bad for John because as Tita admits, she did love him but we’d been so set up for the
Tita/Pedro coupling that I knew it wouldn’t last.  In a weird way, John actually brought
them closer together because it was his announcement of engagement to Tita that causes
Pedro to seduce his sister-in-law, although I took this scene as a disturbing illustration of
his jealous and stereotypically male ego as he was, in fact, still married to Rosaura at the
time while John was free.  Also, the character of John provides the explanation for the
troubling and perfunctory but predictably inevitable ending wherein Tita and Pedro, now
both single and in their 30’s and 40’s respectively, can finally consummate their
relationship without betraying anyone.  However, as John explains to Tita earlier in the
film, each character possesses a box of matches within themselves that can only be lit by
intense emotion and to each person the trigger for the fire is different.  As the film
foreshadows, Pedro and Tita’s love for one another has been lighting the fires within their
souls all along and when they are finally able to be together, the result is too much for them
to bear.  This final love scene will definitely divide audiences and seems easier to believe in
the book than the film, mostly because literature still has a poetic license more acceptable
in prose form than in cinema.  Pedro’s heart simply stops and Tita decides she wants to die
with him and does so by devouring a box of matches until the two burst into flames, taking
the entire ranch with them in a moment of Bronte-like gothic imagery, leaving only the
cookbook behind as proof of their existence.

In conclusion, I found
Like Water for Chocolate to be an utterly enjoyable and successful
work of magic realism and in this essay set out to analyze the film in its regards to that
magical style and the ways it handled family duty, gender roles, and romantic love.  While
neither the film nor its use of magic realism will appeal to everyone, I feel that if one is
willing to make the effort as a viewer, one will definitely find the experience worthwhile.  
However, the film, like Tita’s recipes, should come with a warning-- try at your own risk--
and as Tita tells a woman who aspires to cook the way that she does, it helps if you view it
(or in her case, cook it) with plenty of love.  
(c) Jen Johans.
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