Mind Matters

by the Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 403
April 2, 2001

Reel Theology

Chocolat, the book and the Academy-nominated movie, not only tasted good but also left me with some nutritional substance.

Viewed at one level, the story mimics the typical western, Shane being the perfect example. 'Virgin-birth' like, our hero rides in, and with little support faces the powerful who oppress.  Defeating the forces of evil, our hero then rides into the sunset (or in another genre like High Noon or Dirty Harry drops his badge in the dirt or on the captain's desk).

Something more is at work in Chocolat when we discover that the action begins on Ash Wednesday, with the opening of a chocolate shop across from the church, and ends on Easter. Such a framework makes a theological interpretation unavoidable. What will happen when the dour Lenten denial of earthly pleasures comes face--to-face with the lure of divine chocolate? (One might ask, "Can chocolate save the day?" But do we have to ask?)

Chocolat retells the Jesus story..

Like Jesus, Vianne, the shop owner, is 'illegitimate,' a person who 'has no place to lay her head,' has "moved with the wind" ('wind' and 'spirit' are the same word), and has enraged the staid political and social powers during the high holy days. Offering each townsperson the particular chocolate that addresses the 'sour' circumstances of that person's life, individuals find delight and joy, healing and changed lives.

The upholder of the rigid social and religious order in the book is the priest and in the movie is the mayor. That shift of character intrigues me but is relatively inconsequential for the movement of the story. For the core substance of the story is not the usual morality play of a free spirit assaulting and overcoming oppressive custom and religion but a retelling of the Jesus story: a 'savior' who changes peoples' lives. The joyless and the oppressed find healing and release. Easter becomes a day of celebration and joy. In the book, the discredited priest leaves town, and in the movie, the embarrassed mayor joins in the Easter celebration.

Easter comes, though, at some cost. It follows a 'good friday.' When a group of riverboat vagabonds dock, the town is whipped into a xenophobic fervor. Boats are burned and lives are endangered.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, "The question is not what you look at, but what you see." It is easy, in viewing Chocolat, to be delighted by the images on celluloid. It is also possible to 'see' larger life issues.

Theology--conversation about God and the 'big' issues of life--is often more engagingly put and more vigorously discussed outside, than inside, the church. For me, Chocolat is the newest 'provocateur' of such discussion.

The bombastic, blood and guts Gladiator won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Chocolat won my heart and mind--and stomach.

--Robert H. Tucker
2 April 2001
© Robert H. Tucker, 2001.

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