April 19, 2007


Category: Feasting,Movies :: Permalink

Last night, in lieu of our usual Bible study, we watched Chocolat.  I had loaned our copy to a friend during Lent, which is the perfect time to watch the movie since that’s the setting of the story, and when he returned it I thought it would be good to watch with the congregation.  There are spoilers in what follows, so if you haven’t seen the movie and you might want to, stop reading right now.

Now watching this movie with the church may seem strange given that several reviewers think this movie promotes neopaganism.  Roger Ebert, for instance, writes: “Chocolat is about a war between the forces of paganism and Christianity, and because the pagan heroine has chocolate on her side, she wins.”  Denis Haack seems to agree, calling it “a postmodern fable about neo-paganism, Christianity, and the quest for tolerance in a pluralistic world.”  And Brian Godawa spells it out in detail:

Neopaganism can be seen as the driving force behind the Oscar-nominated Chocolat (2001), written by Robert Nelson Jacobs from Joanne Harris’s novel.  In this clever version of neopagan redemption, an entire French town is oppressed by the moral scruples of a patriarchal Roman Catholic mayor.  The town is then scandalized by the arrival of a mysterious single mother, who rejects the mayor’s “conventional” religion in favor of her Mayan mother’s pagan origins.  She arrives in the middle of Lent, no less, and opens a chocolate shop. Chocolate is a metaphor in the film for forbidden passions, and soon the chocolate seller turns the town upside down with her free-spiritedness. She helps a physically abused wife to leave her husband and empower herself in feminist fashion. The mayor opposes her and attempts to reform the wife beater along traditional religious lines, also known as Christian repentance. His attempts fail, showing the inadequacy of Christianity to solve the problem. But the mayor continues on in his obsessive campaign against her and the “immoral” gypsies she keeps company with, until he can no longer hold back his own passions for the chocolate she wields. He finally gives in and consumes the brown stuff with Dionysian abandon, learning that so-called intolerance and old-time Christian religion are no match for the alleged “freedom” of feminist neopagan liberation (Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews, pp. 125-126, cited without comment by Doug Wilson).

So why watch such a movie with the congregation?  Because there’s more to this movie than neopaganism.

Even if Ebert and Haack and Godawa are correct in their interpretation of the movie, it still gives the church a lot to think about.  As Denis Haack says,

Like Babette’s Feast, it celebrates the goodness of God’s creation and the glory of human creativity. Both films remind us that food is more than just nutrition — good food, well made and served with love, nurtures both community and a proper sense of delight. The scenes in which Vianne stirs her chocolates on the stove are filmed with a delicious sensuality, and the feast given in Armande’s honor near the end of the film is warmly human and deeply inviting.

Watching this movie ought to remind us that we aren’t gnostics and that food and the enjoyment of it isn’t sinful.  The sooner we stop calling things “sinfully delicious” or referring to things that give us physical pleasure as “decadent,” the better off we’ll be.

Furthermore, the movie ought to remind us of our calling.  Ebert ends his review this way:

I enjoyed the movie on its own sweet level, while musing idly on the box-office prospects of a film in which the glowing, life-affirming local Christians prevailed over glowering, prejudiced, puritan and bitter Druid worshippers. That’ll be —  as John Wayne once said– the day.

I don’t care about box-office prospects, but shouldn’t this be the day, the day that Christians start becoming known for being joyful and life-affirming, for embracing all that is truly good and beautiful, for delighting in the pleasures of food?

But I’m not persuaded that Ebert, Haack, and especially Godawa are correct.  Is this really a movie about paganism triumphing over Christianity as Ebert thinks?  Hardly.


As for Godawa’s review, I don’t know if there are two sentences in it that are correct.  Is neopaganism the driving force?  Nope.  Does the movie present “neopagan redemption”?  Nope.  Does chocolate represent forbidden passions?  Nope. Is the movie about feminist empowerment?  Nope. Are the mayor’s efforts to reform the wife-beater “Christian repentance”?  Hardly.  And on and on it goes.


Now it’s true that Vianne is a pagan.  She’s under the influence of the pagan gods, it seems, who drive her from place to place when the north wind blows.  In particular, she seems bound to her mother, whose ashes she carries with her in an urn.  There are Mayan statues in her chocolaterie.  Vianne doesn’t go to church, and a small boy peeking through her window tells another, “I’ve heard that she’s an atheist.  Furthermore, she plans a fertility festival for Easter Sunday.  So certainly there’s more than a little paganism going on here.

As Godawa says, and it’s about the only thing he gets right, Vianne opens a chocolaterie during Lent.  Now I don’t know much about what Lent would be like in a Roman Catholic community in France in 1959, but it seems to me that a lot of people today, including those who give up pleasures for Lent, don’t really understand Lent either.

Lent is about repentance in connection with Jesus’ death, not simply abstinence from things that give us pleasure.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and runs for forty days, but if you count the days, you’ll find that there are more than forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.  Why?  Because there are a lot of Sundays in that period and Sunday is never a fast day.  That’s what people seem not to understand.  Sunday isn’t a fast day; it’s a feast day.  And therefore I’d argue that if you’re fasting from something (chocolate, for instance) during Lent, you ought to be eating it on Sunday.  Otherwise, you’re turning the feast day into a fast day.

But in this small town somewhere in France, the whole of Lent is a time of abstinence from physical pleasures and certainly from chocolate.  The abstinence is key to the moral fibre of the town, it appears, and that moral fibre is due largely to the influence, not to say the iron hand, of the mayor who even edits and later writes the new young priest’s sermons.

Fascinatingly, as Doug Jones points out in one of the few good reviews by Christians I’ve seen (the other is by Jeffrey Overstreet), the mayor “puts the chocolatier in the same category as the Huguenots — a curious insertion, given that most moviegoers won’t know who Huguenots are.” The chocolatier, with her attitude toward the traditions of the city and her emphasis on love and joy, is being associated deliberately with the Huguenots, that is, with the Reformers.  That’s worth thinking about.

In the course of the movie, it does appear that Vianne brings new life to the community in various ways all of which can be summed up in terms of love and food.  When a battered woman, Josephine, escapes from her husband, Vianne takes her in and teaches her to work in her kitchen.  Contrary to Godawa, this isn’t “feminist empowerment.”  It’s love.  And that love, combined with and expressed in chocolate, is life-changing.

The mayor, meanwhile, takes on the task of reforming Serge, the wife-beater.  He forces him into the confessional.  He requires him to attend catechism classes with the little boys.  He trains him to eat with good manners.  He makes him wear a suit.  Are these changes “Christian repentance,” as Godawa suggests?  Far from it.  The man’s outward behavior changes, but his heart doesn’t.  The law can’t change the heart, and neither can memorizing doctrine or going through the motions of repentance.

In a striking juxtaposition, the film shows the priest placing a thin wafer of bread in Serge’s mouth and then switches to Vianne’s daughter placing a chocolate cookie in Josephine’s mouth.  Which has the power to change people?  The chocolate, of course, but the change is due to the context of love and the failure of the host in the Mass to change Serge is due, not to “the inadequacy of Christianity,” as Godawa thinks, but to the inadequacy of the law.


Vianne and Josephine serve chocolates.

The law can’t change you, but love can.  And when sin reaches its deepest point, the law, represented by the mayor, runs out of options and can only condemn and banish.

But Josephine isn’t the only one to change.  One way to get to the heart of a movie, I suggest, is to ask: Who changes?  Godawa points to the change in Josephine and to the change in the mayor at the end of the movie.

But Vianne herself changes.  She used to move on when the north wind blows, but this time she chooses to stay and lets the north wind blow away the ashes of her mother.  She isn’t bound by the pagan gods any longer but chooses to settle in this Christian town.  More than that, it appears that she’s going to settle down with a man, providing the security and stability her daughter longed for.  As Doug Jones points out, “Even the chocolatier and her pirate lover abandon their lives of Dionysian chaos to lead stable, middle-class lives in the village.”

The priest also changes. But perhaps that’s not the best way to put it.  All along, the priest has displayed an attitude which is different from that of the mayor. When we first see him, he’s singing “Hound Dog” and dancing, and when the mayor catches him in the act, he confesses that he has “a weakness for American music.” Later, when the mayor talks about how they ought to respond to the gypsies, the priest tries to talk about Jesus’ very different way of treating people.  The priest is young and inexperienced and at first he’s dominated by the mayor, but the priest knows that Jesus’ teaching isn’t the mayor’s.  The priest is not an enemy who will be conquered by neopaganism.

But at the end, the priest succeeds in escaping from from under the thumb of the mayor and preaches his own sermon on Easter Sunday, a sermon in which he stresses the incarnation, the true humanity of Jesus.  He says, too, that our goodness is not defined by what we abstain from and avoid but by what we embrace and who we include.

And as we look around the church, we don’t find that all of Vianne’s friends have left the church to form a new community around her.  We find them all there.  True, Vianne isn’t there.  But her associates are.

This is a new church, appropriately so since it is Easter morning, the time of new birth.  And the new birth is not, as the mayor suggested, the rebirth of our moral awareness.  It’s the coming to life again of Jesus Christ, Jesus the man.  The old gnostic legalism is replaced by love and by a delight in the goodness (and tastiness!) of God’s creation.  And the chaotic paganism which prompted the crisis doesn’t triumph but rather is rejected.  And while the former pagan and the rootless gypsy don’t join the church, they do choose to make this largely Christian community their home.

And shouldn’t this be true of us: That we, as the church, are the ones who delight in chocolate, who love the pleasures of the bodies God gave us, who rejoice in God’s good creation, who welcome the strangers and shelter the hurting, who have the fulfillment of paganism’s longings, and who are known, not only and not primarily for what we reject but for what we love and embrace?

Chocolat helped focus us on that goal, and so did the dark chocolate my wife supplied in abundance as we watched the movie.  Watch it and enjoy it and let it stir your imagination as you think about how to live as the church in the world.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:23 pm | Discuss (4)

4 Responses to “Chocolat

  1. Mark Horne » Chacolat was a wonderful movie Says:

    […] John spells out why. […]

  2. Doug Roorda Says:

    Um, I just thought it was about chocolate. . . . No, just kidding, we watched it and liked it; I think you’ve nailed it. Good movie.

  3. John Says:

    A couple things that didn’t fit into my comments in the blog entry:

    1. Vianne gets rid of her mother, letting her ashes be blow away by the north wind. But her father was Roman Catholic (although admittedly he “bent the rules of courtship,” as the narrator pointed out). In the end, though she hasn’t become Roman Catholic herself, she’s moving closer to her father’s side of things, settling down in a Roman Catholic town.

    2. What does the north wind represent? Prompted by a friend’s suggestion, I’ve toyed with seeing the north wind as the Spirit. I noticed right away that the mayor shut the wind out of the church, which fit well. On that interpretation, it’s the Spirit who brings Vianne to town in order to bring about the change the town needs.

    On the other hand, it was (or was alleged to be) the north wind that blew and prompted Vianne’s mother to leave her husband and go wandering, and it’s the north wind that prompts Vianne to do the same thing. It seems to me that Vianne must resist the call (push?) of the north wind by the end of the movie.

    So perhaps it doesn’t work. On the third hand, the gentle south wind blows at the end and brings Roux back to settle down.

    I still think the wind is significant and may be related in some way to the Spirit, but I’d have to think about that more. You’re welcome to tell me what you think, too.

  4. In Which Links are Shared « gilgal Says:

    […] 2. John Barach praises Chocolat, proving once again that my wife knows better than I. […]

Leave a Reply