The film is set in rural Mexico near the border with Texas during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20. It is ostensibly a romance, a tale of love thwarted by rigid tradition. Tita, the youngest daughter of Mama Elena, is prevented from marrying her true love, Pedro, because it is her destiny to care for her mother in her old age. Mama Elena cruelly offers her oldest daughter, Rosaura, as an alternative match for Pedro. Pedro accepts the match, seeing it as an opportunity to be near Tita.
Like Water for Chocolate was the highest grossing Mexican film of the 1990s. In the USA it took over $21 million, more than any other foreign language film in 1993. It was widely seen as heralding a renaissance in the Mexican film industry, which had been in the doldrums since the ‘golden age’ of the 1930s to 1950s. The film, which cost $2 million to make, was funded by a mixture of public and private finance including from IMCINE (Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia), Aviasco, a Mexican airline, and the Mexican Ministry of Tourism. It is a film which presents the country in a tourist-friendly manner and is packed with images of a romanticised, nostalgic Mexico which in part account for its international success.1
The screenplay is adapted by Laura Esquivel from her best-selling novel Como agua para chocolate. The novel draws on a genre of writing first popularised in Mexico in the 1850s when stories for women were published in monthly instalments intertwined with recipes, dressmaking patterns and household remedies.2 These publications were both entertaining and instructional and were in some senses the forerunners of modern women’s magazines. Esquivel’s book is divided into 12 monthly chapters, each based around a recipe. The narrative is played out through the preparation and consumption of food. The film follows a similar episodic structure and retains some of the instructional elements of the book; the preparation of food is often shown in detail and in close-up. The camera lingers on mundane tasks: the grinding of corn for flour, the cracking of eggs for the wedding cake batter and the cracking of nuts for the wedding banquet. The story develops with the kitchen as its central locus and is woven through the performance of everyday domestic chores.
The film draws on a rich seam of South American magic realism, a genre which imbues ‘ordinary world’ situations with fantastical elements. Tita, the film’s central protagonist is born in the kitchen on a tide of tears. (The salt from these tears fills a large sack and is used in the family’s meals for many years.) She is brought up in the kitchen by Nacha the Indian cook and learns how to prepare traditional Mexican dishes. Her food takes on magical properties. As Nacha and Tita prepare the cake for Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding banquet, Tita’s tears flow into the batter and, when eaten, the cake causes an epidemic of crying and vomiting in the wedding guests. On another occasion, Tita prepares quail in rose-petal sauce, using roses that Pedro has given her. The food becomes an embodiment of her passion for Pedro and has a dramatic effect on her sister Gertrudis who develops an uncontrollable sexual desire, which she cannot quench. The heat of this desire burns down the shower house and Gertrudis, in a frenzy, runs off naked, only to be scooped up by a soldier on horseback.
The title is based on a traditional Mexican saying referring to water that is hot and bubbling like a passion or a temper. The film seethes with sensuality. The food is abundant and luscious. It ignites passion and emotion within those that consume it and we can see its effects on the faces of the diners. The food itself represents a melding of various aspects of Mexican culture, the dishes being by turn simple peasant dishes and lavish celebratory fare with expensive ingredients.
Within the film, Tita is portrayed as an idealised woman. She is talented at all domestic tasks and is beautiful and virtuous. She is the keeper of good traditions that will nourish future generations. By contrast the traditions espoused by Mama Elena are repressive and cruel. The tensions between these two traditions reflect the tensions between middle-class Hispanic values and older preHispanic ways in Mexican society, which were played out in the Mexican Revolution enabling an escape from Spanish colonialism and a rediscovery of Mexican identity. As in the popular melodramas of Mexican cinema, these tensions are played out in a personal domestic setting rather than on the battlefield. In such films, the narratives contained gendered archetypes from Mexican tradition. In this film the gendered nature of these roles is destabilised. Mama Elena is the patriarch of the family. She behaves like the authoritarian father, unmoved by sentiment, disciplined and rigid in her views. Ultimately she is revealed as a hypocrite, when Tita discovers that Gertrudis is the product of her mother’s affair. We are not certain whether the family traditions she cites are real or of her own making and she is selective about which traditions she chooses to honour. For example, she eschews the traditional role of nurturing mother and takes on the male role of ranch owner, but she insists that the tradition of the youngest daughter remaining unmarried to care for her mother in old age is adhered to. It is Nacha who is the traditional nurturing mother figure, a role that is bequeathed to Tita. Tita becomes the source of nourishment for all the family, including Rosaura’s son whom she is able to breastfeed despite being a virgin. Rosaura, the obedient daughter who follows her mother’s wishes, is incapable of nurturing her child or her husband and her failed efforts at cooking are contrasted with Tita’s skill in the kitchen. Rosaura is bereft of passion, joy and imagination. She passively follows the wishes of Mama Elena and lives her life unhappily, plagued by digestive illnesses that eventually kill her. By contrast, Gertrudis, the middle daughter is a free spirit. Some commentators have suggested that her wildness is evidence of racial stereotyping within the film (Gertrudis is mixed race). However she is the character who emerges happy and fulfilled at the end of the film. She is a subversion of a key melodramatic female archetype: the whore.3 Normally a role associated with shame and suffering, to Gertrudis it is a natural outlet for sexual passion. Later in the film she becomes a soldier, rising to the rank of general and having men under her command. Like Mama Elena she takes on a traditional male role and this gender transgression is emphasised when Tita steps out to have a serious chat to Pedro halfway through cooking fritters for Gertrudis. Rather than finish the job herself, Gertrudis employs her sergeant to complete the task.