Two new movies from Mexico offer tantalizing alternatives to the Hollywood diet of romance and adventure. They are both tragicomic fables—but that is where
the resemblance ends. Set on a ranch in the early 1900s, Like Water for Chocolate is a lushly photographed family saga about the enchantments of food and unrequited love. El
Mariachi, a loaves-and-fishes miracle of lowbudget film-making, is a brisk action-adventure set in a contemporary Mexican border town.
Adapted by Mexican screenwriter Laura Esquivel from her own first novel, Like Water for Chocolate focuses on Tita (Lumi Cavazos), who is bom on a kitchen counter—literally pushed into the world on a torrent of onion tears. Family tradition dictates that, as the youngest of three daughters, she must forgo marriage to care for her widowed mother until she dies. When Tita falls in love with Pedro (Marco Leonardi), her domineering mother (Regina Tome) forbids the romance. Pedro marries Tita’s eldest sister instead, but only so that he can be close to Tita. Meanwhile, she sublimates her desire into a passion for ambitious cooking—her quail in rose petal sauce has an aphrodisiac magic that ignites a bathhouse blaze and sends her middle sister running naked into the arms of a revolutionary general.
Lyrically directed by Alfonso Arau, the movie is a sweet confection with a toffee-hard core of romantic conviction. It unfolds as a woman’s fantasy—the male characters are little more than decorative objects of desire. And although it is a fable about the insatiable appetites of the heart, the film is richer in flavor than in emotional substance. Still, with the alchemy of the kitchen serving as a sensual metaphor, Like Water for Chocolate provides a pleasant diversion for the jaded palate.
By contrast, El Mariachi is like a hit of fast food, a microwave spaghetti western. A lone mariachi musician (Carlos Gallardo) shows up in a Mexican border town at the same time as a Mafia hit man (Peter Marquardt). Both are carrying black guitar cases. There is a mix-up, a case of mistaken identity, and the musician finds himself fleeing a posse of gunmen.
The movie has the manic rhythm of a cartoon. And the story of how it got made is as wild as the one on-screen. Novice director Robert Rodriguez, a 24-year-old film-school student from Austin, Texas, made El Mariachi on an incredibly low budget of $8,700. He raised almost half of it by checking himself into a research hospital, where he served as a guinea pig. Rodriguez tailored the script to his available resources: a school bus, a pit bull terrier, a motorcycle, two bars and a ranch. Shooting the film in two weeks, the director used inexperienced actors and never showed them the script—he fed them their lines one at a time.
The film-maker says that he originally planned to make the movie for the Spanishlanguage video market—as a way of practising his craft before working up to a Hollywood feature. After Columbia discovered the film and agreed to distribute it, he made a futile pitch to reshoot it for a few dollars more. But El Mariachi is just fine the way it is. With kinetic camera work and dynamic editing, Rodriguez constructs action sequences that leave a lot of big-budget movies in the dust. Besides, the movie’s history has become part of its charm.
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