Reviews — February 14
It may surprise you to know that “The Silence of the Lambs” was not the film that blasted director Jonathan Demme into America’s collective consciousness. We’d need to back up to 1980 for that, for a sweet little comedy called “Melvin and Howard,” the darling of both critics and the public. And it features a main character who has, in an indirect way, a local connection.
That character is Howard Hughes, who in the opening scene of the film wrecks his motorcycle in the desert. He’s rescued by a passerby, Melvin, a career milkman struggling to pay his bills. Months later, following Hughes death, Melvin gets word that Hughes included him in his will for $150 million.
This is a true story, and you’ll need to Google it to find out how things were resolved after the film’s release. The bulk of the movie, meanwhile, is a surprisingly touching, bittersweet look at a working-class family’s struggles at the dawn of the Reagan era. Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for her portrayal of Melvin’s on-again, off-again wife, and Jason Robards is brilliantly understated as the famously mercurial and mysterious Hughes. And yes — the Spruce Goose has a brief appearance.
“Melvin and Howard” (1980) Directed by Jonathan Demme. Starring Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards and Pamela Reed. Rated R for nudity. 95 minutes.
As a mistress of spices, Tilo’s duty is to use the power of turmeric and fennel, fenugreek and cinnamon, ginger and chiles to help others — specifically, those who, like Tilo herself, have come from their native India to live in the confusing, tradition-forgetting, hard-edged culture of the U.S.
She oversees a small shop cluttered with Indian spices, ingredients and prepared foods, such as mango pickles, for her largely Indian clientele. (She also carries a few brightly colored, meaningless knick-knacks for American tourists or Indian immigrants who are buying gifts for Americans.)
Tilo says she awoke to find herself in the shop, fully stocked, after her mistress training on a mysterious island. There she had pledged to devote her life to her calling, forsaking all else — her natural beauty, a family of her own, even the touch of another’s hand.
Her special powers let her know not only what her customers want, but what they need — courage to leave an abusive husband, for instance, or tolerance of the next generation’s changing ways. She must apply herself equally to helping each one; she cannot have favorites. And she cannot leave her store; they must come to her.
Tilo is named for Tilottama, or sesame seed, the spice of nourishment. She chose the name herself, rather than accepting a name from the First Mother, teacher of the candidates hoping to become mistresses of spices. Picking her own name was one of the first ways she asserted herself, revealing herself to be a radical who will always struggle with the rules.
Divakaruni writes, “Remember,” said the First Mother, when she trained us. “You are not important. No mistress is. What is important is the store. And the spices.”
Divakaruni’s writing is lovely and evocative, and she weaves myth and reality into a satisfying cloth. The stories of Tilo’s interaction with her customers’ lives are the best parts of the book.
I was a little disappointed, though, by how “The Mistress of Spices” concluded — the ordinariness of it. I would have preferred to skip the girl-meets-boy part of the love story and focus completely on the mysticism, cultural traditions and the love Tilo shares with her spices.
“The Mistress of Spices,” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 1997, Doubleday.
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