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Theological Moviegoings: Babette’s Feast

babettesfeast

Babette’s Feast is so quiet and understated that it is easy to forget what a glorious little film it really is. There is beauty and a deceptive simplicity, but also great depth and meaning, in this story about the spiritual renewal of a fading sect of elderly Lutherans on the barren Jutland coast. Actually, the fable-like tale is rather slight, essentially providing important background information to set up the titular meal, which takes up the final third of the movie.

Two elderly sisters, Martina and Philippa, dutifully carry on the spiritual legacy of their father, a tradition built on asceticism, regularly convening his tiny congregation to discuss his teachings and serving their little community as best they can. They are aided in their task by a French servant named Babette, whose presence is explained through a series of flashbacks which briefly outline the sisters’ lives. Regarded as great beauties in their youth, each sister is courted by a glamorous visitor to their small village.

Martina is courted by Lorenz Lowenhielm, a dashing young soldier who has been sent to stay with his elderly aunt as a sort of punishment for his large gambling debts. Enticed by Martina’s beauty, Lowenhielm begins attending her father’s prayer meetings, but eventually he decides to return to his own world. As the years go by, he proves adept as both a military man and at court and rises to the rank of general. On the night of the feast, he has returned to visit his aunt (who must be well over 100 by now, but nevermind), and so he finds himself sitting at Martina’s table once again, this time under very different circumstances.

Meanwhile, Philippa is courted by Achille Papin, a celebrated French opera singer who is lured into the village church service by the sound of her voice. He immediately goes to her father and offers to give voice lessons, but it soon becomes clear that he is not interested in her for musical reasons alone. Eventually, Philippa grows uncomfortable with Papin’s romantic lyrics and promises of stardom in Paris, and she asks her father to discontinue the lessons. Papin returns to Paris, dejected. However, some years later, he sends Babette to seek shelter with the two sisters when she is forced to flee Paris.

With all of these elements in place, the stage is set for what is to come. The old minister has been dead for many years, but a loyal group of elderly villagers still meets faithfully to discuss his teachings. With his 100th birthday approaching, his daughters want to have a modest celebration in his honor. Their quiet plans are somewhat derailed, however, when Babette discovers that she has won 10,000 francs in the lottery and insists on treating the sisters and their friends to a proper birthday feast. Martina and Philippa feel that they cannot deny Babette this, the first favor she has ever asked of them, but they resolve (along with their father’s other disciples) not to take any pleasure in the decadent meal.

Babette’s Feast is constructed around this tension between the spirit and the flesh, a conflict most Christians understand all too well. The sisters and their friends live a very simple life, partially due to circumstances, but also by choice. The old minister has taught them that only the spirit is pure, while the flesh is evil and its  pleasures are wholly corrupt and sinful. As a result, they have rejected earthly comforts in pursuit of higher things. The world they inhabit is cold and gray and empty of joy, and director Gabriel Axel spends most of the film avoiding bright colors, even keeping scenes with candlelight to a minimum until the evening of the feast. As the guests arrive, the film is suddenly bathed in a warm, cozy glow, as if preparing us for the transformation of this small community. They take their places around the table, stony-faced and firm in their resolve not to enjoy themselves.

As dish after dish comes out and fine wine is poured, the guests chew and swallow mechanically, as though they encountered this sort of meal every day. As if to encourage one another and avoid temptation, they piously quote the minister’s words to one another: “Man shall not only refrain from, but also reject any thought of food and drink. Only then can he eat and drink in the proper spirit.” General Lowenhielm, the only one present who can genuinely recognize and appreciate the magnificence of the meal, is simultaneously baffled by their reaction and enraptured by the food in front of him.

Aside from Babette herself, Lowenhielm is the most intriguing character in the film. His brief experience with the minister’s sect in this remote outpost seems to have pushed him to the opposite extreme from the day-to-day life of the ascetics. Cynically using what he learned to manipulate the fashionable interest in religious piety at court facilitated his pursuit of wealth and power. There is a sense that he has lived every day to the fullest, experiencing everything that life on earth has to offer. He is a man who has accomplished everything he set out to achieve.

On the day of the feast, as he prepares to accompany his aunt to visit the woman he once loved, he stares at himself in the mirror and wonders whether he made the right decision all those years ago, believing that, somehow, his question will be answered during the course of the evening. “You must prove to me,” he tells his younger self, “that the choice I made was the right one.” In the end, his question will be answered, but in a way that he never expected.

As the meal goes on, the guests talk less and less, and they begin to beam at one another, quietly sharing the joy of the feast with a sense of true community that they do not seem to have experienced in some time. Meanwhile, Lowenhielm is deep in thought. At last, he taps his glass and stands to his feet to say a few words:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

The others likely do not fully understand the significance of his words, nor would they have been able to articulate their experience so well, but everyone seems to recognize that something profound has transpired. Lowenhielm has come to the table full of questions, and found that none of them matter in the light of divine love and grace. And, even though the others may not genuinely understand what has taken place that night, they are no less affected by it.

Throughout the film, the congregation is frequently shown singing a particular hymn about “Jerusalem, my heart’s true home.” Encapsulated in this line is the longing for Home keenly felt by this group of Christians. It is a longing for a place which, for them, cannot be experienced in their present life, but they obviously feel the lack of it. However, Babette, through the power of her artistic ability, brings the community together for a taste of precisely what they all desire. It is a profoundly spiritual experience which, unexpectedly, begins by satisfying fleshly appetites.

It is no surprise, then, to find that Babette’s character resonates so powerfully with Christlike significance. She is the source of the divine love, grace, and revelation felt and experienced by the twelve (yes, twelve) guests gathered for this symbolic meal. Her own pleasure (for she enjoys very little of the food she has prepared) is in serving those she has invited to the feast. And there are uninvited guest, as well. As the meal is served, Babette invites the General’s driver into the kitchen to partake of each dish, too. Her gift is not something which is extended only to a select elite, but to everyone.

In the final twist, as the sisters prepare to say farewell to Babette, they (and we) we learn that she has spent her entire winnings on the lavish feast, literally gifting the community with everything she has, and that she plans to stay on and serve the sisters as before. “But dear Babette,” they protest, “you should not have given all you owned for us.”

“It was not just for you,” Babette replies.

“Now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life.”

“An artist is never poor.” The film ends with the recognition that the sisters’ understanding of God was incomplete, and that Babette has blessed them and their Christian brothers and sisters with renewed fellowship through a kind of pleasure and joy which they had not expected to encounter in this life. As a film, Babette’s Feast offers similar blessings to any viewers who approach it with a willingness to receive its message of grace and community through artistic service.

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~ by Jared on October 20, 2009.

2 Responses to “Theological Moviegoings: Babette’s Feast

  1. Having watched this film, I was disappointed that I had fought sleep and of course lost the opportunity to fully understand the film. Knowing I could appreciate more, I found your meaningful report. Thank you. Your perception and writing of same is appreciated.

  2. […] and its eucharistic overtones, check out the recommended reading by Robert Barron (on Sakai) or the short essay found here for a plot summary and some theological […]

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