By ignoring God’s commands to enjoy His world and its God-given pleasures, legalistic communities find value in what they deny themselves rather than in what they enjoy.  The more they want to please God, the more they surrender the very life that God meant for them to enjoy.

Though this truth is a central theme of the New Testament, it is illustrated in a new and enchanting way in the Lasse Hallstrom film ‘Chocolat.”

Based on a novel by Joanne Harris, this modern fable creates a make-believe French village governed by a pharisaical Count.

A rigid and empty man whose wife has left him, Count de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) has been increasing his grip on the town for decades.  A wealthy landowner who is also mayor, his dark devotion to the rules of propriety and of his religion has given him not only political but religious power as well.

The redeemer-figure of our tale comes in the unlikely form of a nomadic chocolatier.  A practitioner in the Mayan remedies her father discovered on a South American expedition, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) mixes chocolates that have a profoundly life-changing quality.

A beautiful and complex person, Vianne functions as a counselor, psychiatrist, pastor and friend to the impoverished souls of the townspeople.  Having the “gift” to choose the right chocolate with its awakening powers for each person, Vianne’s diagnostic skills become a popular alternative to the Count’s dutiful prescriptions for life.

Having imposed himself as the mentor of the young, newly appointed priest of the local Roman Catholic Church, the Count begins writing legalistic sermons for the priest to preach.

This is the most dangerous seduction for a well-meaning Christian community.  Taught by Jesus the impossible goal of loving unconditionally even those who would make themselves our enemies, many Christians retreat into practicing legalistic religious rules rather than vital Christian love.  Once hidden, the soul becomes rigid, judgmental and destructive.  Opposite to the teachings of Jesus Christ, such legalistic communities remain Christian in name only, having long ago excluded the very One they meant to honor.

When the Count begins to realize the power Vianne’s charms and chocolates are having on the people of his town, his true self beneath the outward religiosity becomes obvious.   Rather than reaching out in love, he begins a systematic campaign to destroy her and run her out of his town.

When he is finally faced with the true greed and destructiveness of his own soul, the Count is humbled and shamed by not only his own behaviors, but also those of a wife-beating alcoholic he had been trying to reform.  His humility comes as an unpredicted answer to his prayer that God would show him what to do.

When the humbled Count releases his hold on the young priest, this novice pastor finds his voice to preach an Easter Sunday sermon that begins a transforming celebration of life not only for the Count, but for the entire town as well.

Though the redeeming power of chocolate is a fictional tale, the life-affirming message of “Chocolat” is a factual truth.  We are created for life, abundant, joy filled life.