The male characters in the film are by contrast passive: Pedro goes along with Mama Elena’s rulings without question and never actively fights for Tita; Dr John Brown cares for Tita and restores her to health when she breaks down after the death of Rosaura’s son but passively accepts Tita sleeping with Pedro and is still prepared to marry her despite the indiscretion. However female autonomy within the film is largely achieved by the absence of male society, politics and commerce. We have a glimpse at the male world at the start of the film when Tita’s father has a heart attack in a bar and dies, having discovered that Gertrudis is not his biological daughter, but, throughout the film most of the action takes place in a matriarchal domestic setting. The revolution is used as a backdrop to the narrative rather than being a key feature and although soldiers appear from time to time, we are not told the nature of the conflict. The family themselves carry on life as normal with the fighting going on around them. Mama Elena is killed by soldiers and Chencha, the servant is raped but these events are not part of a wider narrative about the war.
There are parallels between the narrative and the traditional European folk tale of Cinderella. We can map the characters across: Tita consigned to the kitchen is Cinderella; Mama Elena, her nemesis, is the wicked stepmother who victimises Tita and treats her as a personal servant; Rosaura her eldest sister who does her mother’s bidding is the ugly sister; and Nacha who supports Tita is the fairy godmother. Pedro is Prince Charming, but does not emerge as a romantic hero. He passively goes along with the rules as set down by Mama Elena and does not attempt to rescue Tita from a life of drudgery. Tita too is outwardly conformist; her rebellion is enacted through her food. Although she does not consciously control its magical effects, rather the passion just overflows from her into the food. Her cooking expresses what she herself cannot and food forms a communication between her and Pedro allowing her to ‘enter his body’ through the meals that she cooks him.
Tita is only free to be fully with Pedro after her mother and sister are dead. At the end of the film this complete union is both passionate and romantic. The ghost of Nacha lights a myriad of candles around the bed. Pedro and Tita are literally consumed by their passion. Pedro dies during lovemaking and Tita realises that he has ‘lit all his matches’ simultaneously as described by Dr John’s Indian grandmother. She swallows matches to join him and the ranch is consumed in flames. Tita and Pedro walk into a tunnel of light to enjoy their happy-ever-after. This is clearly a parody of a fairy-tale ending, indicating the impossibility of eternal love and happiness. Tita succeeds in passing on a legacy to future generations in the form of her recipes and in the termination of the tradition of enslavement of the youngest daughter; the film is narrated by Tita’s grand-niece as evidence of this legacy.
The message of the film is highly conservative and whereas ‘domestic’ feminists have praised the film for its celebration of the creativity of women and female tradition, others have noted that the film consigns Tita to success only in the private and personal realm. The public sphere of men is hidden from our view and so are the inequalities of wider society. The effect is to present domestic servitude as a natural role for women (and Indian servants), thereby ultimately reinforcing the patriarchal order.4
1. See Deborah Shaw’s chapter, ‘Seducing the public: Images of Mexico in Like Water for Chocolate and Amores Perros’, in Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten key Films, London & New York, Continuum, 2003.
2. See Maria Elena de Valdes (1995) ‘Verbal and visual representation of women: Como agua para chocolate/Like Water for Chocolate’, in World Literature Today, Winter 1995, Vol. 69, Issue 1, University of Oklahoma, p. 78.
3. From ‘La Malinche’, the Aztec princess who delivered her country to Cortez through sexual submission.
4. See Kraniauskas, J. (1993), ‘Como agua para chocolate’, Sight and Sound Vol. 3, No. 10, pp. 42–3, BFI, London.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Mexico. Production Company: Arau Films. Director and Producer: Alfonso Arau. Screenwriter: Laura Esquivel. Cinematographers: Emmanuel Lubezki and Steve Bernstein. Editors: Carlos Bolado and Francisco Chiu. Music: Leo Brower. Cast: Lumi Cavazos (Tita), Regina Torné (Mama Elena), Marco Leonardi (Pedro Muzquiz), Mario Ivan Martinez (Doctor John Brown), Ada Carrasco (Nacha), Yareli Arizmendi (Rosaura), Claudette Maillé (Gertrudis), Pilar Aranda (Chencha).]
L. A. Cheyne, ‘Gender, Agency, Memory, and Identity in Like Water for Chocolate’, in Offscreen Volume 7, Issue 4, April 2003. Available at www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/water_- chocolate.html (accessed 14 April 2013).
C. Counihan, ‘Food, Feelings and Film: Women’s Power in Like Water for Chocolate’, in Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, Volume 8, Number 2, Fall 2005, pp. 201–14.
J. King, A. M. Lopez and M. Alvarado (eds), Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas, London, BFI, 1993.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.