Reviewed by Frank Lovece

A trifle with substance. Many movies have been made about the redemptive power

of food, but only in this latest fable from director Lasse Halström is

culinary redemption ascribed to the gods. Or so suggests the literal

translation of Theobroma cacao ("divine food"), the scientific name for

the tree that bears the cocoa bean, the source of chocolate. It's 1959, and

the sleepy French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is awakened — in some

cases, aroused — by the arrival of Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and

her chocolate confections. Vianne's a ramblin' gal of a particularly prim and

proper sort; with 6-year-old daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) in tow, she

wanders from city to city opening chocolateries and dispensing ancient

cacao remedies for heart and soul. Lansquenet's devout mayor, the Comte de

Reynaud (Alfred Molina) — who watches over the town with an officious

Catholic piety — doesn't approve. He views the free-spirited Vianne as a

threat: How dare she tempt fasting parishioners with confections during Lent!

Vianne, of course, is a threat, but less to the town's tranquility than

to its look-the-other-way complacency. Little by little, her various sweets

help raise the town's spirits (and other things, thanks to aphrodisiacal

chocolate beans fed to unwary husbands by their wives) until the arrival of

some rock-and-roll-ish river travelers, led by the Irishman Roux (Johnny

Depp), leads to a momentary civil-rights crisis. Binoche, marvelously, invests

Viane with enough anger and self-doubt that she's never merely an idealized

wandering angel, and as a vinegary matriarch, Dame Judi Dench wrings

near-impossible eloquence from such lines as, "It tastes like... I don't

know." The most delicious performance, however, is Molina's: His Comte may be

an oily priss and rumor-monger, but he's honorable in his intentions and never

hypocritical. It's all a bit obvious and more than a little didactic, but the

film still burbles with delightful dialogue and a sparkling sense of life.