Chocolat a remedy for what ails Christianity? It's only
a movie, but ...
I doubt that Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat will
break any box office records, but it may garner an Academy Award nomination or
two. If you were a fan of Babette's Feast, you'll love Chocolat. It's
a feast for body, mind and spirit.
To be sure there is enough eye candy
in this one to please those who go to the movies for pure visual pleasure: the
sensuality of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, the picturesque French village
of Lansquenet, and the assortment of characters who move in and out of the village
church, chocolate shop, medieval castle and surrounding countryside where most
of the action takes place. There is a strong story line that begins when Vianne
Rocher and her daughter Anouk arrive in the village to open up a "chocolatier."
No ordinary cook, Vianne draws upon some prodigious intuitive powers to
discern the thoughts and feelings of those that surround her and suggest exactly
the right combination of candy and counsel to address their deeper hungers. Vianne
is part French and part Mayan, but it is her Mayan blood and near magical powers
of perception that seem to color her very being, making her the perfect alter
ego to the film's chief protagonist. Presiding over Lansquenet is the overly pious
Comte De Reynaud. He rules over the political, social and religious life of the
village like a benevolent despot. The Comte's main vehicle for exerting his will
over the townspeople is the young priest of the village church who is so anxious
to please that he allows the Comte to rewrite his sermons. Lansquenet is,
then, a miniature theocracy. Imagine an America ruled by an all powerful Jerry
As it happens Vianne opens ups her chocolatier during the
middle of Lent and in a variety of ways succeeds in "tempting" a number
of the villagers to break their Lenten fasts and indulge in both chocolate, and
the more powerful sensual pleasures that it unleashes. Vianne, it is clear,
functions as a kind of earth mother, offering a taste of the passionate life that
the Comte finds so powerfully unsettling. Vianne's charms are powerful enough;
when she teams up with the gypsy-like Roux (Johnny Deep) who arrives by river
boat, it is clear that events in Lansquenet are beginning to spin dangerously
out of control.
Chocolat functions as a parable. It's the repressive
Christianity of the Comte and his church, locked in combat with the passionate
paganism of Vianne and her growing community of liberated misfits and outcasts.
This movie seems to be suggesting that the remedy for a repressive Christianity
is exposure to the warmth, charm, and sensual beauty of paganism. It's the
cold hearted and immovable Father God of the Comte's Catholicism thawed by the
passionate Earth Mother of pantheism. But is this recipe for the greening of Christianity
as much of a cure all as Hallstrom and crew seem to believe? I have
some major reservations. A casual, feel good Christianity may prove to be far
less durable than the strong minded orthodoxy it seeks to replace. The warming
up of the faith can also be its dumbing down. In truth, this movie is not so much
a prescription for what could be, as it is a description of what already is.
must report from the frontlines of change within churches all across America and,
indeed, the world, that this film's program for a post-modern Reformation is already
well underway. One sees it everywhere as worshippers come to church in casual
dress, participate more actively in worship, and sing praise songs that borrow
expansively from pop music genres of every kind. Today a good number of priests
and ministers no longer feel it necessary to hide their personal interests, like
the Elvis loving prelate in this movie; they are now unabashed in their embrace
of many features of popular culture, from rock to rap. Likewise, many churches
have long welcomed women into leadership positions, affirmed gay and lesbian persons
as legitimate members of the body of Christ, and joined with environmentalists
to save the planet. And while I share the view that Father God has a lot to learn
from Earth Mother, and would welcome the news of a more permanent union between
them, still, it is crucial to remember that the Holy One remains above and beyond
our understanding, and at the same time, is closer to us that we will ever know.
Hence, even Chocolat, however delicious and delectable, does not provide
a cure all for the ailments of institutional religion, let alone the larger woes
that afflict the human family on the face of this troubled planet.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.