A glance at the names associated with Like Water For Chocolate's Alfonso Arau's new filmic fable A Walk in the Clouds is enough to strike terror in the heart of any Like Water cultist. Can the Mexican director's pulsing, sexy vision survive the Zucker brothers production team, who have individually or together steamrolled the life out of whatever mythic aspirations might have once existed in scripts like Ghost and First Knight?
And then there's Keanu Reeves, bless his hard-working, ambitious heart. It's important to remember that singular talents like Anjelica Huston and Tuesday Weld labored for years without respect as boy toys before they flowered. If Reeves hasn't grown much more expressive as an actor, he's developed a professionalism about his craft that ensures his line readings are no longer the excruciating experience they were in My Own Private Idaho and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Reeves has proven he knows how to reflect the radiance of brilliant fellow performers. In A Walk in the Clouds, he is surrounded by titanic charisma, from veterans like Giancarlo Giannini and Anthony Quinn and relative newcomers like Aitana Sanchez-Gijon. Reeves allows them to lift him atop their shoulders and gently carry him through this exquisite romantic fable set in California's Napa Valley in the late 1940s.
Ultimately, they're all surrounded by Arau, who's forsaken the magic realist overtones of Like Water For Chocolate for a subtler sense of movie symbolism. In this film, chance encounters change lives irrevocably, hatred can literally start a blaze that consumes an entire family, and love is a root that transforms destruction into rebirth.
Paul Sutton (Reeves), a chocolate salesman who has just returned from World War II to discover the woman he married after a weekend fling has read none of his letters, is adrift with a broken heart. On a bus he protects the honor of another wounded soul named Victoria Aragone (Sanchez-Gijon), who is returning from college to the vineyards of her aristocratic Mexican-American family, pregnant and husbandless.
Sutton and Aragone strike up a deal--he'll pose as her husband, stay long enough to meet the family, then "abandon" her in the night and resume his wandering.
Trouble is, Aragone has a tyrant for a father (Giannini), a man who lords it over the family business like a despot and hasn't much patience for gringos, especially one his only daughter married without permission.
This seems to bode well for Paul and Victoria's plan, since the patriarch's aggressive hostility is the perfect excuse for him to run off. But Paul finds himself drawn into the favor of Victoria's grandfather (Quinn in a beaming, rascally performance), a soulful old wino who has learned that the essence of tradition lies not in Giannini's inflexible ideas of family responsibility, but in the softer, subtler strands that connect people to each other, their past, and their future.
The real miracle of A Walk in the Clouds is the confidence with which Arau unites his characters, their human dilemmas, and the spine-tingling visual motifs--moon, mists, flames, foliage--that surround them. He has created a swoony fairy-tale world that supports this ship of fools like gently cresting waves yet never feels slick or self-conscious. (Aficionados of Arau can shudder imagining what would've resulted if co-producer Jerry Zucker, guilty of the aforementioned Ghost and First Knight, had directed.)
The sweet pleasures that reside in this movie suggest Alfonso Arau is a master of human nature as well as cinematic imagery. Not only do his actors settle into their roles like they've been granted whole new lives, but the American commercial forces who financed it never once intrude with a tacky, pandering ploy for audience involvement. A Walk in the Clouds is a success on many levels, but perhaps its greatest victory is the triumph of Arau's benevolent will over Hollywood's commercial impulses.
A Walk in the Clouds. Twentieth-Century Fox. Keanu Reeves, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Giancarlo Giannini. Written by Robert Mark Kamen, Marke Miller, and Harvey Weitz-man. Directed by Alfonso Arau. Now showing.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.