Set in 1950’s France, Chocolat is a film centred on the Catholic virtue of temperance, or rather the struggle to achieve temperance when the church is faced with the temptation of a 2000 year old chocolate recipe. Temperance is defined in the catholic encyclopaedia as “the righteous habit which makes a man govern his natural appetite for pleasures of the senses in accordance with the norm prescribed by reason”, and in Chocolat it is the Comte de Reynaud, the major and self appointed moral authority for the whole community, that attempts to keep check of the villager’s carnal passions and temptations. There is an obvious conflict between the Comte and Vianne Rocher, the single mother who arrives in Lansquenet bringing a splash of red to the dreary black and white town, who eventually through her chocolates breathes life into the town’s dead system that the Comte had gone to great lengths to preserve. Religious themes such as temperance, penance and reconciliation are central to how the film works as a film, and clearly demonstrate how it is highly conducive to theological exploration. The theological theme that I am going to explore in more detail is the Catholic sacrament of Confession and Penance, taking into consideration the relationship between the traditional Catholic view of confession and the ideas of the sacrament that I bring to the film as a viewer.
As the story opens, Vianne and Anouk are carried by a strong north wind to a small, quiet village in France around the year 1959. Possibly the wind motif, that is constant throughout the film, is a parable for the theological theme of the Holy Spirit, acting as the principle force that has drawn Vianne to the village. The wind could also be perceived as representing the winds of change and reform, with strong imagery employed when it forces open the doors of the local Catholic Church where most of the villagers are assembled. The Comte reacts by slamming the door shut against the wind, forcing it, and its possible changing qualities, out of the church. It is the season of Lent, and the restrictions of that religious season are strictly enforced in the village. The citizens are ruled with an iron fist by the mayor and there is little joy in the village with the inhabitants slaves to the religious oppression of the Comte de Reynaud. Even the young Catholic priest, Pere Henri is controlled by the mayor. The mayor even tells Pere Henri at one point, "If you haven't seen the chocolaterie, you might want to take a look. It's important to know one's enemies." Thus, anything and anyone who opposes this man's rigid religious tradition is "the enemy”, an attitude often seen, even today among religious extremists and legalistic believers. The Comte encourages the villagers to resist the temptations of Vianne’s sweet chocolates, telling them to ‘boycott immorality’, and a tussle ensues between him and Vianne.
Jeff Shannon, a noted film critic, comments, "The film covers familiar territory and deals in broad metaphors that even a child could comprehend." There is nothing deep or complex about the message, and yet the cinematic metaphors are so broad that countless applications are possible. The film begins with the introduction, “Once upon a time”, thus some see it as a kind of superior fable or parable of the eternal cosmic battle between good and evil. The morals of the film seem to come from children’s fairytales, but with adult themes having been introduced. Although this good vs. evil battle is certainly evident within the film, I think this may be too general of an interpretation. Others see it as a commentary upon the struggle between Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church and pagan, worldly values. I would interpret the film as principally a critique of the Catholic Church, highlighting the need for modernisation within church doctrine and practice with the Comte at one side of the spectrum representing repressive Christianity and Vianne and her...
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