Friday, March 2, 2001 at 1:00am

Until it was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture, the film Chocolat was doing modest business at best and had attracted limited critical and audience attention. Now with an Academy Award nomination in hand, it has been elevated into the ranks of a must-see film, although the box office showing remains far short of blockbuster status.

Director Lasse Hallstrom assembled the cast and constructed virtually the same cinematic setting as his acclaimed Cider House Rules, though not using an identical plot or environment. Instead, Chocolat offers its audience a morality play and a look at changing attitudes in a small French town during the 1950s.

A single, unmarried woman with a child (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche) arrives in a small village choking under the moralistic reign of a hypocritical mayor (Alfred Molina). He not only controls the town

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