An altogether different 'Wild Bunch'

April 02, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In my highly personal view, Alfonso Arau's wonderful "Like Water for Chocolate," which opens today for a two-week run at the Charles, is a strange and magical subtext to Sam Peckinpah's equally wonderful but completely different "The Wild Bunch,"of 1969, which, as fate would have it, I've justseen on tape in a majestically restored version.

But consider: the two movies are essentially set in the same place and time, the Texas-Mexico border right before World War I, when the Villistas and the Federales as well as assorted American riffraff roamed the dusty land, destroying each other and all that came between them.

Consider again. Director Alfonso Arau was in "The Wild Bunch"! Yes! He was the charming, grinning staff officer to the corrupt General Mapache, and he had a line that conferred instant screen immortality upon him. He's the one, as all "Bunch" cultists will surely know, who, begging William Holden to put out the fuse on a demolition-rigged shipment of guns, mutters famously, "Ayiee, smart, very smart, damn gringos," through a smile as broad as the Rio Grande.

Yet in some ways, "Like Water for Chocolate" might be seen almost as a rebuke to Peckinpah's piece. Peckinpah, like many a gringo before him and sadly some after him, took Mexico entirely for granted. It was the place for Norteamericano scum to go and give vent to their crudest impulses; it was a land without consequences, a giant brothel, a landscape of corruption, an arena for almost apocalyptic violence.

Damned gringo, Arau seems to be saying these many years later: Look, and I will show you a magic land of family traditions, a culture so complex and mysterious it will haunt you for the rest of your days, a depth of passion and dreams you will never forget, a cosmopolitanism that will dwarf your meager materialism, a sense of the land that is beyond your wildest dreams. And . . . lots of great food!

And thus is "Like Water for Chocolate," if nothing else, the best movie ever based on a cookbook. Shakespeare claimed that music was the food of love, but in this movie, derived from a novel by Laura Esquivel, food is the food of love. The frame story is built around a granddaughter in the '50s finding grandma's legendary cookbook, handed down through the years, and using it to uncover a miraculous tale of love and deceit and betrayal. It's in the style that has come to be known as "magic realism," something of a Hispanic-Portuguese specialty, with great works by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Manuel Puig and Isabel Allende.

Arau's story swirls around an aristocratic family of mothers and daughters -- papa died at a party, when it was whispered that his middle daughter was illegitimate. He just keeled over into the salsa.

Family tradition is cruel. It holds that the youngest daughter, Tita (Lumi Cavazos), must not ever marry; she is instead fated to serve as cook and caretaker for her mother's old age. Alas, it is she, the most beautiful and spunkiest, with whom the handsome Pedro (Marco Leonardi), falls in love.

The movie basically follows the romantic permutations within the household, and do these permutations ever permute! A sister runs off to a brothel and comes back a General. The sister who is married to Pedro keeps growing fatter and fatter and becoming more flatulent (Tita is doing the cooking, remember?). From her cockpit in the kitchen, Tita wages a campaign to earn for her, years down the road, her one true love, while herself battling madness, ghosts and violence. And she gets what she wants exactly (and romantically) as she loses it.

The movie is majestic and charming and so bizarre. To see the Peckinpah landscapes, the same costumes, the same slouching soldiers reconstituted as a magic and erotic comedy is literally mind-boggling. And if you haven't seen or don't give a damn about "The Wild Bunch," it's still a tangy repast. And the memories of it you carry away may be hot but they aren't heartburn.

"Like Water for Chocolate" 6$

Starring Lumi Cavazos and Marco

Leonardi.

Directed by Alfonso Arau.

Released by Miramax.

Rated R

***

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