Thursday, September 29, 2016

"Chocolat" (2000)

“Chocolat” is not a perfect movie, but it is the kind of experience I look for in film. It tackles a sticky issue and it fights for its position without completely demonizing other perspectives. And, in this case, it makes a good point.

The village in this “fairy-tale” has an easy life. They all know exactly what is expected of them and they all do what is expected. The brand of Christianity is one with clear rules. As long as you follow them, you will be alright. Break them and you will suffer the judgment of the community. It isn’t very effective at dealing with sins that matter, but people stay so busy trying to fit in that a degree of sin is kept in check. And, in this system you can pretend that you are the master over sin instead of being a slave to it.

That community is run by a mayor who sees it as his duty to “help” everyone be the best legalist they can be. And he of course is the most devout of the lot. In his legalistic understanding of his faith, it is easy to measure “levels” of faith. Simply fulfill more rules than anyone else. The problem is that it is a system that focuses all on externals. Cups washed clean on the outside, but contaminated within. In the mayor’s case, his life has fallen apart. His wife has left him, but he tells everyone she is on holiday. He is living a lie, but he is being the best liar of the bunch.

Arriving in this village—just as Lent is beginning—is a woman, Vianne, who opens a chocolate shop. And, since demonizing others is an even more effective way of building oneself up, the mayor targets her as a threat to this town’s religion.

Vianne has a knack for knowing the chocolate that people will like best. With that comes a knack for helping them find what they are missing in life as well. One of the women she befriends is Josephine. She is a bit of an outcast on account of her strange behavior. She is married to Serge, a man who abuses her. However, when she meets Vianne she finds the courage to run away from home and find a place where she can be accepted and have purpose.

The mayor is initially angered that Vianne has helped Josephine rebel against her wedding vows, but then he learns of the abuse. It is then that we get a comparison between the two competing approaches to healing. Josephine learns to love and respect herself and become a part of the community by being loved and respected. Serge is subjected to extra-legalism training to help him become a better man through will-power.

A problem with the film and its fairytale approach is that sin is rendered a bit toothless as there is no explanation of the Christian understanding of redemption. Yes, legalism is a sinful attempt to heal sin on our own, but simply rejecting legalism doesn’t help. There needs to be a real source of forgiveness before we can experience the healing love and acceptance of God.

Vianne also has a struggle of her own. She is trapped into a different sort of prison of ancestral worship and hopeless isolation. Will she break free and find true belonging in the community of Christian faith once the village is healed of its legalism?

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