CINEMA / Made to make your mouth water

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The Independent Culture
LOVE AND food, appetite and desire, are old mates in the movies, from Jean Renoir's romantically perilous picnics to the epiphanies of John Huston's final feast in The Dead. But it has taken Alfonso Arau's Like Water for Chocolate (15) to consummate the relationship. The plot is cooked up in the kitchen, and ingredients such as quail and coriander become more familiar than the characters. A romantic comedy, set over 20 years of the Mexican Revolution, the film is by turns bitter and wildly fantastic: a danse macabre to the music of thyme.

The heroine, Tita (Lumi Cavazos), is born on a kitchen table, literally washed into the world on a flood of tears brought on by chopped onions and a mournful destiny. She is the third daughter of a stern matriarch (Regina Torne) who insists that youngest daughters should tend mothers rather than husbands, and forbids her to marry her sweetheart Pedro (Marco Leonardi), fobbing him off with older sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi). He marries to be nearer his true love. Tita embraces the kitchen with a vengeance: cookery becomes both escape and revenge. As artists imbue works with their feelings, Tita invests her food with emotions and magic: when she cooks for her sister's wedding feast she cries into the batter.

The guests taste, and then wail. Later a rose-petal sauce acts as an aphrodisiac; diners leave the table to quell amorous itches.

These two scenes, which should be richly comic, fall strangely flat. The film's rhythm is all wrong, so we rush through without time to relish the comedy, feel the anguish, or fly with the fantasy. At least half an hour has been cut by the studio, which can claim to have been vindicated: they have the all-time top Latin-American grosser in the United States. But it feels like the ghost of a much greater enterprise. The novel on which it is based, by Arau's wife, the screenwriter Laura Esquivel, is neatly ordered, with each romantic episode arising out of a recipe: as in cookery, art springs from science. The film ditches the recipes and takes potluck.

It's a shame because most of the ingredients are there. As the young lovers, Cavazos and Leonardi have the right downy bloom, and they remain on the brink of adulthood throughout the 20 years of the film, as if their bodies were suspended in waiting as well as their hearts. Tita seems imprisoned by the kitchen as well as wedded to it, having to give Rosaura a diet to woo back her husband by conquering her bad breath and flatulence. Arau gives the film a melodramatic glow - it's full of crimson sunsets and glowering storms - and neatly choreographs some of the early eating scenes, with food being devoured on the music's beat. It all needed stringing out and savouring rather than bolting down.

Back north of the border, but only just, is Blood In, Blood Out (18), the epic tale of three chicano boys growing up in east Los Angeles. The film runs from 1972 to the mid-Eighties. At the beginning the trio are as thick as thieves, though less into robbery than gang warfare. They don't pull their punches - knives, yes - nor does the film. Early on, violence surges up like a force of nature, as we see Cruz (Jesse Borrego) dragged with his girl from his car, to have his spleen ruptured on a bollard. Miklo (Damian Chapa) is plugged in the horrific reprisal. In this scene the young men's destinies are written: Miklo goes down for murdering the rival gang leader; Cruz, who'll always need a walking stick, becomes an artist and heroin addict; their friend Paco (Benjamin Bratt) escapes to find discipline in the police force.

Blood In, Blood Out is meandering and self-indulgent, but also rich and uncompromising. Despite longueurs, especially towards the end, you warm to it for devoting three hours to characters Hollywood doesn't normally give the time of day to.

Miklo is the most intriguing: half-Anglo, half-chicano, he has drawn bottom lot in the racial stakes, rejected by blacks for his whiteness, an outsider with his own colour. Self-hatred and confusion become a continued spur to self-destruction. His scenes in jail are the cankered heart of the film. This is no Porridge, but an inferno of race hatred and vice: an illicit economy of dope and pimping, where transvestites stalk the corridors with their hair in curlers, sleazy staff favour the whites and tout for sex, and the cruellest word is always the first. Thanks are offered to San Quentin jail in the credits, and it's surprising that any prison could sanction such a brutal portrayal of the system being shot within its walls. Prison is seen as an unending, ever- flaring war of attrition between three factions: whites, chicanos and blacks. To prove himself to his chicano brothers, Miklos has to kill a white chef: 'sangre per sangre - blood in, blood out'.

Life on the outside is hardly rosier: we see that on the stony ground of American cities even the most promising seed is doomed. When they succeed - Cruz with cartoonish paintings, Paco in the drugs squad - the boys are pulled back, by the past and their own guilt. Director Taylor Hackford, a flashy commercialist in the days of An Officer and a Gentleman, plays this straight, often sacrificing the spark of invention to safety. But Bill Conti's brassy score - like Cruz's paintings - makes up with doomed exuberance. We close, nothing resolved, with Cruz and Paco beside a picture of their buoyant young selves. 'Three brothers looking for something that wasn't there,' Cruz reckons, and it's hard to disagree.