Forgiveness of Sins The Therapeutic Confession

A recurring plotline in cinema tells the story of a suffering soul who defies the stultifying repression of a rigid, moralistic community in order to be true to the gift of insight and beauty that churns inside, and which must find a way out - even at the cost of being ostracized by the community. It is the story of Vincent van Gogh - the solemn, awkward son of a Dutch Calvinist pastor who, rejected by his church and wavering on the edge of insanity, paints canvases that reenchant the ordinary world. It is also the story of the young artist from the Hasidic community in Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev. It represents the pitting of ontological faith against moral faith, the mysterium fascinosum against the mysterium tremendum. This basic plot, run through various scenarios, has given us such memorable films as Babette's Feast (1987), Breaking the Waves (1996), Pleasantville (1998), and most recently, Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat (2000).35

Chocolat is a parable about the vivifying effect of a free-spirited chocolatière, Vianne, the daughter of a French pharmacist father and a Mayan botanista mother, on a pietistic Catholic village in France in the late 1950s (Figure 5). Vianne's nemesis is the mayor, Comte de Reynaud, who, like his ancestors before him, oversees the civic institutions and moral order of the community with a combination of paternal care and iron-willed determination. In the opening scene the villagers enter their church, passing the mayor who stands at the door, greeting each one, as the narrator sets the tone: "Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French countryside whose people believed in tranquillité, tranquility." Then, as the worshippers sing "Come take possession of our souls and make them all thine own," the narrator continues: "If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things. And if you happened to forget, someone would remind you."

Inside the church, the young vicar announces that the season of Lent has begun, a time for abstinence, reflection, and sincere penitence. With these words, a gust of wind blows open the doors of the church, and the camera pans out to reveal that newcomers Vianne and her daughter have just arrived in the village. Within days Vianne opens a chocolate

Figure 5 Vianne's chocolates have mysterious and therapeutic powers in the movie Chocolat (2000). Used under license from Miramax Film Corp. All rights reserved.

shop, Chocolaterie Maya, and, one by one, villagers duck in to sample her truffles, nipples of Venus, and chocolate seashells. Vianne's confections have unusual powers to unlock the repressed happiness of her customers; strangely drawn to the shop, her customers begin to confide their secrets to her - the estrangement of a daughter, the abuse of a husband. Vianne selects a chocolate to ameliorate each heartache, and everyone who consumes her chocolates begins to notice small transformations in their dreary lives. As word reaches the Comte - who is strictly observing Lent on a diet of water and lemon slices - that so many of the citizens in his charge are frequenting the Chocolaterie, he presses the young vicar to admonish through a homily those who are succumbing to the "guise of Satan" who has entered their lives as "the maker of sweet things, mere trifles - for what could seem more innocent, more harmless, than chocolate?"

In response, Vianne advertises that she will be staging a chocolate festival on Easter Sunday, with stalls and street performers, fertility dancers, jugglers and flame swallowers. In desperation, the Comte kneels alone before the crucifix in the church and prays for guidance. He rises, and in the dead of night before Easter sunrise, he breaks into the chocolate shop and commences hacking to bits the chocolate goddess in the window. A flake of chocolate lands on his lip. He licks it, savors it, then surrenders with a vengeance, gorging himself on the chocolate goddess, and finally falls fast asleep in the storefront window, weeping. The priest is the first to see him there in the morning. He awakens Vianne, and she gently awakens the mayor, offering him a drink as she assures him (echoing the eucharistic liturgy): "Drink this. Drink this, it will refresh you. I promise. Go ahead, drink." He does.

Then the Comte, sprawled in her chocolates, confesses to Vianne, "I'm so sorry."

She absolves him with an understanding smile, "I won't tell a soul." Shortly, the Comte, who always sits in the front pew during worship, is seen slumped and disheveled in the back row, as the vicar begins his sermon.

I'm not sure what the theme of my homily ought to be today. Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about his divinity. I'd rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life here on earth. His kindness, his tolerance. Listen, here's what I think: I think we can't go around measuring our 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.

The congregation pours out of the church at the end of the service to join in the merrymaking of the chocolate festival, as the narrator voices over: "It was certainly not the most fiery sermon Père Henri would ever preach, nor the most eloquent. But the parishioners felt a new sensation that day, a lightening of the spirit, a freedom from the old tranquillité. Even the Comte de Renaud felt strangely released."

Staged entirely during the season of Lent, this story matches wits between two soteriologies: one of self-discipline and the other of self-fulfillment. The point of view of the movie is clearly on the side of the latter. In the story, petty confessions the villagers make to the vicar ("Chocolates, so innocent, I thought one little taste couldn't do any harm") are juxtaposed to the truly heart wrenching confidences that are shared with Vianne ("I don't love my husband, he beats me and I'm stupid to stay with him"). Even the vicar comes around in the end, rejecting any equation between goodness and self-denial. In his director's commentary featured on the DVD version of the film, Hallstrom reveals, "It's a story about temptation and the importance of not denying yourself the good things in life." As lovely and enchanting a movie as it is, there is something disturbing about the salvific powers it attributes to the "spiritual practice" of consumption in contrast to its desiccated portrayal of such traditional spiritual exercises as confession, penance, and fasting. In conjunction with the fetishizing of chocolate that this represents (there is a Mayan spirit world that backs up the transformative powers of Vianne's confections), there is the matter of its endorsing what Eugene McCarraher has called "commodity spirituality";36 that is, the idea that spiritual formation is a matter of being discriminating consumers (this chocolate, not that one; this brand, not that one) who acquire commodities for the purpose of symbolizing their beliefs.

The bold contrast in this film between the efficacy of absolution offered in a chocolate shop to that offered in the church presents an instructive lesson in the way that the modern therapeutic ethos and its ideal of self-fulfillment has come to serve as the favored mode of confession and forgiveness in popular culture. To appreciate this, a brief detour through the evolution of confession is in order.

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