Anti-Catholic bias doesn't always take the form of a frontal assault.

A proven tactic is to condemn Church organizational structures as corrupt and hold out hope for reform.

But accompanying this point of view is often an attack on orthodox Catholic doctrine which, it's implied, needs to be modified to accommodate current spiritual trends.

Chocolat is a well crafted, female-empowerment fairy tale set in 1950s France that's animated by this kind of anti-Catholicism. Yet somehow it has managed to pass itself off as a plea for understanding and open-mindedness.

After receiving largely favorable reviews, this Miramax (Priest and The Cider House Rules) release garnered an endorsement from the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. Its Jan. 11 statement urges “all Americans” to see the film, which it praises for “addressing the issues of prejudice and intolerance in a sensitive and entertaining manner.” This is to be followed by a screening later in the month at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance.

A close examination of the film's content, however, reveals a repudiation of the Catholic faith as most orthodox believers understand it. The movie's villain is a conservative Catholic, and he and his reluctant underling, the local parish priest, must not only prove themselves more tolerant of non-churchgoing citizens but also turn their backs on the essence of their faith before the filmmakers will certify them as good guys.

The story is set in the fictional village of Lansquenet, where “everyone knows his place.” This means total conformity to existing social traditions which are based on the Church and the land-owning aristocracy. The enforcer is the mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who expects all villagers to attend Mass regularly and rewrites the homi-lies of the parish priest (Hugh O'Conor). But, the pastor, it's humorously suggested, can't be all bad because he, at least, likes Elvis Presley.

An unusually strong wind blows into town, bringing with it an unwed mother, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), and her pre-adolescent daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol). They open a chocolate shop, symbolically named Maya, which promises to overturn Lansquenet's established order like an unruly force of nature.

It's Lent, and fasting is expected, a practice director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs subtly ridicule. When the mayor tells Vianne not to open her shop because its goodies might tempt the faithful away from the holy season's disciplines, we're meant to see his demands as arbitrary and intolerant. Her refusal to comply or to attend Mass gets her labeled “an atheist” which, by definition, makes her seem a threat to this closely knit community. The battle lines are now drawn, and it's clear the audience is supposed to take her side.

Vianne's homemade chocolates have magical powers which improve her customers’ sex lives and open them up to long repressed feelings. Her recipes were handed down to her by Central American ancestors — female followers of the ancient Maya religion who had special spiritual powers and wandered from place to place as she does.

In keeping with popular New Age thinking, the filmmakers associate these close-to-nature pagan cults with female liberation and show Vianne empowering the neglected and abused women (Judi Dench and Lena Olin) of the village. By extension, the Church, as represented by the Comte, is depicted as the primary instrument of patriarchal oppression. This, of course, ignores the violent, blood-thirsty rituals of Maya worship which regarded women far more harshly than even the most reactionary sort of 1950s Catholicism.

Vianne takes up with Roux (Johnny Depp), a romanticized version of an Irish gypsy who plays guitar and lives on a river barge. The Comte organizes a campaign to run him and his band of “godless drifters” out of the area. Leaflets are printed which the filmmakers intend to be ironic. “Family, Church and Community,” it's stated, need to be protected from the evils of “self-gratification.” But this latter value, in fact, accurately describes the effects produced by Vianne's chocolates, which the movie holds up as morally superior to Christianity.

The mayor, while presented as the source of most of the village's intolerance and repression, is also treated comically, often behaving like a cross between Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and the cartoon character Snidely Whiplash. He's as bumbling as he is cruelly judgmental, and, predictably, he too is eventually tempted by Vianne's tasty concoctions.

Lent is, of course, is followed by Easter, and the parish priest uses the occasion to deliver a homily that finally reflects his views rather than those of the mayor. The young cleric focuses on Jesus as a man. “I don't want to talk about his divinity,” he preaches, voicing a sentiment that seems directly contrary to the meaning of the feast which celebrates Our Lord's resurrection. Yet the filmmakers want us to applaud his departure from the rigidities of orthodox faith as proof of what he's learned from Vianne's presence in the village.

Chocolat, based on Joanne Harris’ novel, perpetuates certain fashionable clichés. A chaste, ascetic lifestyle is depicted as dangerous to your mental and physical health, and an unrestrained libido is seen as the key to psychological and spiritual sanity.

It would be hard to watch this film and not think of Babette's Feast, one of the Vatican's top 45 films, which also uses food as a metaphor to explore the relationship between the senses and the spirit. Babette sees the sensual submitted to the spiritual, and the spirit soars.

Chocolat tries to have it the other way around and winds up, like so much Hollywood religion, only pretending to fly.

Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.