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A glance at the names associated with Like Water for Chocolate director Alfonso Arau's big budget filmic fable A Walk in the Clouds is enough to strike terror in the heart of any Like Water cultist. They might well wonder if Arau's pulsing, sexy vision could 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 for movies such as Ghost and First Knight.

And then there's the issue of star Keanu Reeves, bless his hard-working, ambitious heart. With Reeves, though, it's important to remember that talent doesn't always appear full formed; singular performers such as Anjelica Huston and Tuesday Weld labored for years as boy toys before they flowered. If Reeves at the moment is still far from being their peer, he has at least developed a professionalism about his craft that insures his line readings aren't the excruciating experience they were in My Own Private Idaho and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

That's one reason why, ultimately, fans of the robust, mystical, gentle spirit with which Arau infused Like Water for Chocolate won't be disappointed by the Mexican director's first tango with Hollywood. Reeves has proven he knows how to reflect the radiance of brilliant fellow performers, and in A Walk in the Clouds, he's surrounded by titanic charisma that comes from veterans such as Giancarlo Giannini and Anthony Quinn and relative newcomers such as Aitana Sanchez-Gijon. Under Arau's tasteful direc-tion, Reeves allows them to lift him atop their shoulders and gently carry him through this exquisite romantic fable set in the late 1940s in California's Napa Valley.

A Walk in the Clouds forsakes the magic realist overtones of Like Water for Chocolate for a subtler sense of movie symbolism. Here, 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 that 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 Aragon (Sanchez-Gijon), who's returning from college, pregnant and husbandless, to the vineyards of her aristocratic Mexican-American family.

Sutton and Aragon 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, Aragon has a tyrant for a father (Giancarlo Giannini), a man who lords over the family business like a despot and hasn't much patience for gringos, especially one his only daughter has married without his 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 (Anthony Quinn in a beaming, rascally performance), a soulful old wino who's 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, flame, 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.

The sweet pleasures that reside in this film suggest that Arau is a master of human nature as well as cinematic imagery. Not only do his actors settle into their roles like they'd been granted whole new lives, but the American com-mercial 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 benevo-lent will over Hollywood's commercial impulses.

A Walk in the Clouds.
Directed by Alfonso Arau. With Keanu Reeves and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon.
Rated PG-13.
102 minutes.

 
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