With the Lenten season upon us, I thought it would be interesting to re-visit a movie that takes place during the season. Since so many folks in my circles were giving up chocolate for Lent, (either I’m clever or cruel, the jury is still out) I thought it apropos to review Chocolat (2000). Chocolat is one of those light romantic movies that is neither a romance nor a chick flick, though it often seems to masquerade as one. Yet, I couldn’t think of a better movie to illustrate what it means to be the church, to be missional in one’s life, and featuring a hero(ine) molded so perfectly in the image of Christ.

The movie has a fable quality about it, sort of a “once upon a time” setting. Have you ever had the feeling that life is gray? Like somehow all the joy and color you expect to be there has been drained or never quite come to full light in your life? So many of us wander through our lives in just that very state; some of us, sadly, thinking that we have actually arrived at where we are supposed to be. Such was the condition of a small French village when a mother and daughter, like missionaries, enter the town – like a clever north wind blowing into people’s lives. The pair immediately set up shop, a chocolatarie to be precise, dispensing ancient kawkaw remedies and offering healing. The movie almost seems to want to set up this battle between a pagan, earth priestess and an over- church-ified town, but I thought that was the wrong way to look at this movie.

Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and Anouk Rocher (Victoire Thivisol) are not perfect, mind you. Vianne is a bit of a slave to her own restless spirit and Anouk had an imaginary friend–her kangaroo, Pontouf–who had a hurt leg (representing her own wound that needed healing). Vianne is strong, self-reliant, and independent – characteristics frowned upon in a “fallen” woman. And yet, broken vessel that she is, Vianne has chosen to adopt Christ’s mission to be a blessing to others. She challenges the (empty) traditions of the town, their way of life and doing things.

Opening a chocolaterie during Lent, their holy time, was the equivalent of doing “work” on the Sabbath, the holy day, the sin Jesus was often accused of committing. It is the idea of the message of the chocolate that fascinates me. As Harry Knowles, of Ain’t It Cool News, put it: How many times are we told that Chocolate is an instrument of the devil? We describe its taste as being sinful. Why? Is something so good automatically a pull-string to hell? If so, why be a part of a religion that preaches such rhetoric. Seriously, who wants to go to a heaven where Elvis and Chocolate are not allowed? The thing is, while chocolate could very easily be a metaphor for sin and the forbidden, I actually thought it stood for the exact opposite: the Gospel. Chocolate symbolizes the Good News – a message of liberation; a renewal of their minds and lives; transformation to their true selves.

“If you lived in the village, you knew what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things. And if you were to forget, someone would remind you.” –Anouk Rocher

The town, like so many of us, was all about surface matters, the pursuit of appearances: looking good–spiritually and otherwise. It’s no wonder that the Bible ends up saying of the religious leaders of its day, the Pharisees, “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Faith doesn’t look like duty; no one wants duty, not even God. The Comte Paul de Reynaud (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2), the mayor of the city, was also its chief Pharisee. He extolled hard work, modesty, self-discipline, almost for their own sake rather than for any greater purpose. His gospel was one of legalized morality, with morality apparently being its own end. In his campaign against this trouble-maker, Vianne, the more he felt his power slipping, the more extreme he became in order to retain his influence. For example, he began launching boycotts against immorality.

In contrast to the religious folk, Vianne provided a much clearer picture of what the church looks like. You see, when institutions fail to do what the were created to do, to be what they were supposed to be about, other places–not often looking like what one expects–will spring up to do their job. Where once there was a church, now there is a chocolatarie and Vianne shows the kindness, acceptance and love so lacking in the town and their professed faith.

“What idea are you selling?” Roux (Johnny Depp)

The people believed in tranquility and tradition. They had become comfortable with their way of doing things, even if their way was no longer relevant or reaching or transforming the people. They had become closed off, repressed – forgetting that God’s creation is good. That there is room for sensuality and responsible balance, just as there is room for mysticism and a love of creation. We were created to enjoy the pleasures of this world. Enjoying it in its proper context, without over indulgence; but some people can’t handle that sort of freedom. So they cling to a narrow set of dos and don’ts, making their faith about rules and regulations, and, inadvertently, God the cosmic killjoy of their lives.

The thing that the Comte had to learn was that spiritual practices without the heart are just empty rituals. When he finally partakes of the Good News (the chocolate), it nearly breaks him. He finds himself, literally, wallowing in chocolate, his hypocrisy exposed. For Vianne, sharing her Good News is done through her actions and through her lifestyle, not by making a sales pitch for a better way of living. Before the Comte could even apologize, she was there offering him (living) water, and sometimes she does have to use words (“Drink this. You’ll be refreshed.”)

“It’s not easy being different.” Vianne Rocher

Vianne very much mirrors Christ. You can tell that by how she is talked about by the town’s people: “Some kind of radical.” Indecent. A bad influence. She hung around with the sinners of her day, the outcasts: scorned women, river rats (the lepers of their town). She even forms her own band of disciples: Luc Clairmont (Aurelien Parent Koenig)–whose mother, Caroline Clairmont (Carrie-Anne Moss, from The Matrix Trilogy and Memento) barely lets out of her over-protective sight; Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin, from television’s Alias). Vianne took in the battered and invited people to walk alongside her in her journey, challenging people’s comfort zones.

Because she was not about forcing her faith, her beliefs on others, she had her moment of doubt, her crisis of faith. While some people respond to her message, some didn’t – and those that didn’t cause all manner of grief, hardships, and hostility. Still, she felt called to love and serve, be a blessing to others, even when they resist. And continue to love any way. Because there was something that both Vianne and the town needed.

“I’d rather talk about his humanity … how he lived his life here on Earth. His kindness. His tolerance. I think we can’t go around measuring out goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what
we create, and who we include.” –Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor)

On Easter, there was a miracle of transformation. A “lightening of the spirit” filled the town as the people were freed from tranquility. Partly, this was symbolized by Vianne herself. She had carried around her mother’s ashes as part of her wanderer’s legacy, much like the story of the Israelites carrying the remains of their father until they reached their promised land (Exodus 13:19). The release of her mother’s ashes was almost like Christ sending the Holy Spirit to complete/carry on His mission.

Christ’s good news was that the kingdom of heaven was now, and we can join him in being a blessing to others. One of the traps that we are prone to falling into is one of judging where we have no business judging. Christ threatened people with inclusion. The ones that you think are out, are in. The ones you think are in are further out than you think. He came to give life, full and rich life, full of joy and color.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a vision of what it means to lead missional and intentional lives – to join in with Christ’s redemptive mission. That’s why I love movies that can paint such a vivid portrait of what it can look like. Movies like Chocolat.