Soon after their arrival in a tranquil French town in the winter of 1959, the mysterious stranger Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her spirited daughter open a chocolate shop. Soon it becomes clear that Vianne has a talent for seeing her customers' desires and satisfying them with a bon-bon made just for them. Fearing her power to make the townspeople abandon themselves to temptation, the mayor, Comte de Reynaud, tries to run her out of town.
In the movie, the Comte is miserable, in denial that his wife has left him, and he uses religion to make everyone as miserable as he is. Organized religion, the movie seems to say, lends itself to this kind of perversion.
I would put it differently. All religions, including earth-based, or any person involved in a spiritual quest of any kind, are vulnerable to self-delusion, just because it makes one more open to certain things.
What I thought odd was that there wasn't a moment where the protagonists suddenly understood their connection to ultimate reality. I liked that it showed that something as simple as opening a chocolate shop can have huge consequences in the lives of people. Vianne was, in her own way, a minister. She listened, much more than the priest listened, and intuited everyone's problems. She knew how to make people feel good about themselves. The priest and the mayor are the forces in the town, yet they aren't listening to anybody.
One of our columnists, Frederica Mathewes-Greene, wrote that "Chocolat" completely misunderstands the concept of spiritual self-denial. What would you say to that?
As I understand it, you're supposed to give up something that's a little more important than chocolate. I don't think making the analogy to Hindus and cattle and pork and Jews works. My question is, how prevalent today is the Catholicism that's being criticized? It was pre-'60s, pre-Vatican II; that kind of Catholicism did exist then. But I don't think it's so much a critique of Catholicism as it is a critique of an old-time, rigid Catholicism. It wouldn't have resonance for someone growing up Catholic in America today, I wouldn't guess.
You could see it in the depictions. Every time we saw the Comte, he was sitting under a crucifix, while Vianne was always surrounded by bright colors and Mayan pottery.
One could argue that both views are slightly stereotypical. This was a very Protestant version of Catholicism. There are so many versions of Catholicism that are filled with ecstasy--ecstatic in body and mind and transformative in a religious sense.