Perhaps not something that would immediately catch your eye at the rental store, this obscure film is actually one of the better independent films you’re ever likely to spend a dollar and two hours on.
Sunday dinner has been a tradition for the Naranjo family for years. Widowed during the important years of his three young girls’ lives, Martin (Hector Elizondo), and his now three grown daughters are still living together but may as well not be for all the reasonable conversation they share. Still he expects them each to participate in the elaborate, home-cooked meal he prepares each week… something that always seems to bring out arguments in his home. Youngest daughter, Maribel (Tamara Mello) is a free-spirit, just graduated from High School; she is always running behind offering some excuse or another whereas eldest, Leticia (Elizabeth Pena) is the complete opposite. Responsible and sensible to a fault, according to her sisters, she is so straight-laced, it’s no wonder she cannot get a date, but she has earned an education and is now a teacher. It is the middle daughter, Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) who clashes most with her stubborn father, perhaps because they are so much alike.
Like her sister, she is a college grad, per her father’s wishes and now has a respectable career but all she really wants is to cook. She loves it, it’s the one thing she feels most passionate about… and even though Martin has lost his sense of taste, Carmen is constantly “improving” upon his recipes, to his great chagrin. When their neighbor, Yolanda (Constance Marie) and her young daughter entertain a houseguest -- Yolanda’s mother (Raquel Welch), things start to get rather interesting. The girls look on it as an opportunity for their father to move on with his life and maybe start to lessen his hold on their lives. Or maybe this change is what all of them need to break free of stability and uncover the real spice in their lives… Something that will whet your appetite has been an ongoing trend lately… and not just from your cookbooks. Whether it chronicled a very famous connoisseur or tells a story of tragedy that centers around food, the Cineplex has become the newest place for mouth-watering dishes. This low-budget story wasn’t well-received nor did it get the typical amount of acclaim, regardless, there is something unique about its premise and way of telling its story that makes it, well, irresistible.
Tortilla Soup is a re-make of a foreign film as many others are; what is different about this dated movie is the fact that it really does focus on the food and the preparation that goes into it. This leaves little to no room for the usual more complex character development. In fact, the opening credits offer up a hurried introduction to who will end up being the four main characters and all without telling us who they really are because there is such an emphasis on the food being made by the patriarch. There is at least one character that really seemed misplaced because writers really gave her no “purpose”; there was a bit of comedy, so in that instance, she was entertaining. This makes for some of the rash decisions all the more unrealistic, because we are asked to believe it and can’t, realistically. Eventually, we are allowed into more of their personal lives and habits but for the majority of the story, food is a driving force. But oh, doesn’t the food more than make up for a lack of character personifications. I am about as far from a gourmet cook as one can get, but do enjoy cooking, so seeing “food” as a mechanism of a screenplay was interesting. The smallest least insignificant ingredients serve a purpose in Martin’s dishes. From the blossoms one usually rips off the end of homegrown squash to making a utensil to brush butter onto food out of an edible substance, everything looks phenomenal.
Watching from that aspect, you are amazed as you end up wondering, who does cook like that!? Obviously a family who loves to cook, and has more than one talented person in that field to boot. While the delicious meals may make you smile with delight, there are a few flaws in an otherwise well made production. Most the scenes are well-filmed and sweet. In particular there are a handful of the three sisters enjoying typical moments of sisterly affection – one of the more memorable one involves the girls fighting and trying to get Letty to loosen up a bit as they throw plates on the floor. Such rare scenes or even knowing glances serve to brighten the mood of any scene and offer a sense of realism. There are some simple joys that remind us to take life as it comes and to enjoy every minute. Like is short, something we all too frequently forgotten. In the tradition of No Reservations (ironically, also taken from a foreign film), Recipe for Disaster or Julie & Julia, this may have been the precursor, but is still worth checking out. And really, after that all that needs to be said is: Bon Appetite!
(Rated PG13 because… we meet Carmen in a state of half-undress with her boyfriend; some suggestive dialogue is part of the scene. Later they flirt and fool around a bit again [another women is glimpsed in nothing but undergarments in her boyfriend’s apartment]. The sister’s tease and cajole one another about their relationships one sister is said not to have been with a man in a decade whereas another supposedly sleeps with every man she meets [informed crudely]. In the heat of an argument, Maribel moves in with her boyfriend [nothing inappropriate is seen of their relationship apart from a few kisses, and some playful flirting; once they are lying together, fully clothed on his bed]. Profanity pops up periodically, but there are a couple misuses of Jesus’ name; Spanish is used a couple of times in suggestive ways where the implication is quite clear. Sex is briefly discussed in cavalier ways. Kids play a couple of pranks that ends up embarrassing someone. There is a death that is quite emotional for the family; an older man also marries a younger woman.)