04 January 2016

Interpersonal Compassion, and Judgment?

Lasse Hallström's Chocolat is a story of overcoming exile and learning to accept the differences in others while maintaining a tight-knit community.

When a single French woman, Vianne (Juliette Binoche), and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) move to a village on the French coast to set up a chocolaterie, they instigate townwide chaos by questioning the very cultural foundations of the town, including stringent attendance at Mass and Confession, as well as avoiding certain delicacies during Lent.

As a result, the town turns against their newest member, labeling her enterprise as a cooperative effort with Satan and her chocolates as acts against God himself. Yet, in continuing to follow her own moral compass in the face of ostracism, Vianne forms two crucial relationships, one with Josephine (Lena Olin), her friend-turned-associate whom Vianne hosts for fear that Josephine's husband (Peter Stormare) will continue to physically abuse her, and Armande (Judi Dench), an elderly woman and closet diabetic whom Vianne regularly serves and makes conversation.

It is at Armande's funeral when the priest, Pere Henri (Hugh O'Connor), indirectly—and not too unreasonably—blames Vianne for Armande's death, opting to transform the moment into a caution for the town against associating with those who give in to worldly temptations. Indeed, rather than preaching about abstaining from temptation or wrongdoing, he chooses to encourage harsh interpersonal judgment as a basis for forming lasting relationships.

While this may work very basically as a function to limit temptations for each individual residing in the town, its repercussions are painful: By forcing everyone to brutally analyse each town member, he 1) mandates a universal—unclear—ethical code of conduct, by which to judge everyone; 2) empowers each person to judge her peers' ethical worth, without much care of inaccuracy; and 3) ignores the greater concern of encouraging abstinence from bad behavior, by focusing exclusively on exiling those with different moral codes.

Eventually, Pere Henri attempts to reconcile with his mistake when he later encourages the town members to focus their religious identities on what they do accept, prioritizing interpersonal compassion over abstinence from bad behavior, but that barely even hints at his earlier suggestion for each citizen to scrutinize her peers.

Our identities are formed from the positives and negatives of our existence, accounting for our care and respect towards others, as well as what we've refrained from pursuing, but are we ultimately the ones responsible to judge our peers' moral worth based on our slim impressions of them? Taking Pere Henri's answer to its logical extreme could merit harsh discrimination against people of differing beliefs, but ignoring it altogether may help instigate lawless, unjust communities.

While Chocolat fails to adequately respond to Pere Henri's many concerns, it certainly demonstrates how communally fulfilling it is to embrace groundbreaking ideas from foreigners, even if the only tangible benefits are a handful of truffles and a surplus of balloons.

Vianne (Juliette Binoche) installs the sign to her new chocolaterie, cementing her enterprise's permanent presence in her new community.
Image Courtesy of Miramax Films

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