Cinema Signal:

. "Tortilla Soup"

There ought to be a law that when a movie concentrates on the skillful preparation of food, on the creation of culinary masterpieces, the showing must be followed by that food being available in the lobby of the theatre for immediate consumption by the clientele. Such is the appetite these films arouse. Now, in the fine tradition of such film food classics as "Babette's Feast" (1987), "Tampopo" (1986), Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994) and Stanley Tucci's "Big Night" (1996), comes the latino entrant, "Tortilla Soup".

With the culinary guidance of southwestern and south of the border celebrity chefs and restaurateurs, Sue Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, owners of Border Grill in Santa Monica, California, the food preparation part of the film is completely up to the mark as daddy-chef Martin Naranjo (Hector Elizondo) pulls off the sense that he has the skills of a culinary artist with an encyclopedic knowledge of dishes and the creative ingredients to make them special.

Where credibility begins to break down is that his three daughters, Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), Maribel (Tamara Mello) and Leticia (Elizabeth Pena) are thin as runway models even as they feast at dad's table of abundance on a daily basis. Nice, but it strains credulity.

Why is it that in all these food movies the characters so often don't finish every morsel of the meal? Like the drama of their lives counts for so much. I say, later with the drama -- let's finish the spectacularly prepared dishes. Oh, well, maybe that's how they keep their figures.

Kidding (and meal envy) aside, the film is about a family revolving within the home orbit while each defies the central gravity to push out toward his or her own life of independence. In this theme we see a modern family and not a necessarily latino one. Which is, in itself interesting. This is supposed to be a hispanic transplant from the Ang Lee script but the only cultural emphasis is on the use of "Spanglish", a mixture of Spanish and English that these modern American girls lapse into. This is used in the film as a device for Elizondo to act the father figure and berate his daughters over something safe and impersonal.

As for his daughters, Carmen is the professional sister, looking at a life of achievement on the high edge of the business world. She's the one who has absorbed the most of her father's kitchen skills even as she pursues her career. Maribel is the youngest, wildest, (cutest?), most mixed up as she pursues life, love, and understanding of who she is and wants to be.

Finally, there's school teacher Leticia who seems to be using a born-again christian devotion to mask fears of spinsterhood until, that is, the new baseball coach (Paul Rodriguez in a nicely controlled portrayal) arrives on the scene. At that point, her world, as well as how she says grace before the meal, changes.

Try as the actors do, the script doesn't seem to create an organic sense of family. Tracing all these threads through the various subplots and bringing them back home doesn't seem to coalesce, which may be due to the vagueness of family history or essential details of and motivations behind members' lives. Which is not to say there aren't playful, meaningful and fun moments. It's just that one is left with the feeling that there should have been, on the team of writers, at least one Italian, who are so adept at creating completely believable film families.

No script suffers from the presence of Elizondo who should patent his hold on that deeply internal quality of decency. It's hard to imagine an actor better suited to play a much loved father -- master chef or not -- hispanic or not. His appeal is universal and without cultural particularity.

Raquel Welch throws herself into the caricature role of an older woman with designs on the future of the master chef. She wants his aprons hanging in her kitchen while she schemes without shame to get them there. It's a role that suits her too well but she deserves some praise for her dedication to it.

In its production, it was shot digitally and then transferred to film.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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