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'Tortilla Soup'

Bueno apetito: Family's soul is fed in 'Tortilla Soup'

Friday, October 12, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Eat Drink Man Woman." Remake. It's the cycle of movie life.

 
 
'Tortilla Soup'

RATED: PG-13 sexual content

STARRING: Hector Elizondo, Raquel Welch

DIRECTOR: Maria Ripoll

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

"Tortilla Soup" was inspired by the excellent 1994 film from director Ang Lee, who would later dazzle the world with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The original explored how a father and his daughters lose and struggle to regain their appetite for food, family, love and life itself.

That film was shot in Taiwan and had English subtitles. "Tortilla Soup" was filmed in Encino, Calif., and the family's heritage is Mexican, as are most of the delectable dishes that pass before our eyes. Like "Chocolat," "Big Night" and "Babette's Feast," the food plays a supporting (or, at times, starring) role.

"Tortilla Soup" stars Hector Elizondo as Martin Naranjo, a widower for the past 15 years and a master chef whose three unmarried daughters live with him. He considers Sunday dinners sacred, with attendance mandatory, and we watch him make a gourmet feast with the timing of a surgeon or choreographer.

He plucks vegetables from his backyard garden, cuts and drops cactus leaves (a Mexican delicacy) onto the grill, cleans and cooks fresh fish, pulls out mortar and pestle to grind ingredients, fries bananas, makes squash-flower soup and his own ice cream. And that's only part of his preparation.

Martin's three daughters are as different as appetizer, main course and dessert. The eldest, Leticia (Elizabeth Pena), is a reserved and religious chemistry teacher whose colitis flares up when the sisters squabble, which they inevitably do. Middle daughter Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is a beautiful, brainy businesswoman who might be happier as a chef. Wild child Maribel (Tamara Mello) postpones college when she meets a bohemian Brazilian in a sporty convertible.

On the fringes is a friend named Yolanda (Constance Marie), who has a young daughter and is in the process of getting divorced. Her mother, Hortensia (Raquel Welch), arrives for a visit and transparently sets her sights on making Martin the latest in her string of husbands.

During the course of the movie, the daughters' lives are shaken up by old and new boyfriends, by job offers too good to turn down, by the death of a longtime friend and the reawakening of the senses. Love comes to many of the principal players and often in unexpected ways.

The food is the handiwork of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, owners of the Los Angeles based restaurants Border Grill and Ciudad. They've written four cookbooks dedicated to the Latin kitchen, starred in the Food Network series "Cooking With Too Hot Tamales" and worked as consultants for United Airlines, which serves their dishes on flights to Mexico and Central and South America. I can't vouch for the taste, but it sure tempts the eyes and stomach.

By doing it first and setting it in Taiwan, "Eat Drink" was particularly fresh and exotic. However, "Tortilla Soup" gives the story yet another spin, and it also proves delightful, funny, surprising, occasionally thought-provoking and universal.

It celebrates the art of pouring your love and time into the making of a fine meal and relishing it with friends and family. Or pouring your love and time into the making of a fine movie and relishing it.

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