The proliferation of movies about the magical quality of inspired cooking and the link between eating and human feeling (especially of the sexual variety)–just think of 1991’s “Like Water for Chocolate” down through last year’s awful “Simply Irresistible” and the recent, mediocre “Woman on Top”– continues with this new fable from Lasse Hallstrom. The director gave his career a lift last year with his widely overpraised filmization of “The Cider House Rules,” which took tough stands by being in favor of such controversial things as empathy and tolerance, and it did so in a meandering, shallow way. Now he’s applied his willowy approach to Robert Nelson Jacon’s adaptation of Joanne Harris’ novel about a mysterious woman named Vianne (Juliette Binoche) who, in the late fifties, comes to a small village in southern France along with her precocious young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) to set up a candy shop specializing in chocolate confections. These aren’t your usual delicacies, however; they’re all laced with some Mayan magic, mysteriously liberating those who consume them from the social constraints imposed on the local populace by their priggish mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). Before long Vianne is using her wizardry to aid those in desperate straits in the locality: kleptomaniacal Josephine (Lina Olin), a wife abused by her drunken lout of a husband (Peter Stomare); the elderly landlord of the shop, Armande (Judi Dench), who’s estranged from her widowed daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) and cut off from her grandson (Aurelian Parent-Koening); a hausfrau (Elisabeth Commelin) whose spouse (Guillaume Tardieu) no longer finds her attractive; and an elderly gentleman (John Wood) entranced by a long-widowed lady his own age (Leslie Caron). As if all these interrelationships weren’t sufficient, late in the story an Irish drifter named Roux (Johnny Depp) happens along to serve as a romantic interest for Vianne and yet another target for the Comte’s bigoted wrath. (As one who travels the rivers he also fits into Anouk’s interest in pirates.)

All this hokum is undoubtedly well-intentioned–the film tries valiantly to impress upon us how conformity is bad and self-expression good, and how important it is to combat self-righteous provincialism with a hearty dose of open-mindedness. But, weirdly considering the season of its release, the picture frames its message within the context of a struggle between the primitive naturalism represented by Vianne and the brutal strictures of conventional Christian religiosity that the Comte embodies. Reynaud is a bitter, prissy Catholic, obsessively herding the townspeople into mass and insisting that they exhibit their moral virtue by adhering strictly to a demanding Lenten fast (while concealing the fact that his own wife has abandoned him–you see, he’s overtly pious but can’t connect with other people). He’s antagonistic toward Vianne not only because she has a “loose” past (we learn that the father of Anouk is unknown), but also because her candies tempt his charges from their required time of self-denial; and when she also encourages Josephine to leave her brutish husband, the Comte perceives it as an assault on the sanctity of marriage. Vianne only feeds his bigoted anger when she welcomes Roux and his comrades into the townsmen’s midst; these interlopers threaten all that Reynaud has built and worked so assiduously to preserve. The odd dichotomy that the script sets up between the Comte’s adherence to organized religion, which is portrayed as stifling and fraudulent, and the purely human free-spiritedness that Vianne represents is the movie’s main thrust; and it’s resolved only when the young pastor Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor), who’s heretofore served as an amiable toadie to the Comte, finally suggests to his parishioners that true Christianity means a generalized sort of kindness, rather than a set of doctrines and practices. (Even Reynaud, it should be noted, succumbs, abandoning his fast to devour her chocolates.) As Christmas approaches, it’s certainly comforting to encounter a movie that ultimately teaches that the way to deal with temptation is simply to give in to it, since that’s the natural, human thing to do. (The message would do Oscar Wilde proud. After all, he’s the wag who wrote that he could resist anything except temptation.) Or, to put it another way, what “Chocolat” basically comes down to is: Can’t we all just get along, no matter what we do or believe?

Most viewers may let all this slide by in the wallow of good feeling and triumph over adversity that “Chocolat” depicts, but (as with the abortion issue in “The Cider House Rules”) the film actually trivializes important concerns by portraying them within the context of simple-minded fantasy and garish melodrama; it’s much less innocent than it seems on the surface. Hallstrom, as in his earlier film, cloaks that fact with a miasma of atmospheric shots, luminous cinematography and lush, scenic settings, and by assembling a cast of able performers to win our affection. Most notable is the lovely Binoche, and she’s matched by the personable Thivisol (who demonstrates that her debut in 1996’s “Ponette” was no fluke). Molina gets across the uptight character of the Comte well enough, looking in his moustache rather like a younger brother of the equally straitlaced Fred Kite, the Marxist unionist that Peter Sellers played in 1959’s “I’m All Rigt Jack.” Dench carries off her grumpy old lady bit efficiently (presumably Joan Plowright wasn’t available), Depp poses amiably (which is all that’s asked of him), and Olin flutters about as a newly-liberated woman. Watch closely for Leslie Caron as Madame Audel, the elderly widow pursued by John Wood’s Monsieur Blerot; seeing Gigi herself more than forty years on is a treat–and she still looks lovely.

While Hallstrom’s film bathes you cinematically in a warm, insistently intoxicating glow, you may be disinclined to notice its strange message, which is really as intolerant about traditional religiosity as it claims rigid believers are against others. Its easy answers and glib solutions, as attractively packaged as they are, will probably seem charmingly endearing to those who don’t think too carefully about them. But while “Chocolat” pretends to be nothing more than a uplifting ode to human freedom, in reality it’s a curious combination of calculated sweetness, brutal bigotry, sudden violence and anti-establishment polemic. The same could be said of “The Cider House Rules,” of course, and audiences embraced it last Christmas. No doubt Miramax is hoping lightning will strike twice in the same place. As we all know, though, it’s rare for that to happen.