Judging from internet posts, many people experienced political indigestion as they celebrated the traditional American Thanksgiving meal. This stands in stark contrast to the experience of another meal of thanksgiving described in the Academy Award winning film. Pope Francis has often talked about his admiration for the film “Babette’s Feast.”
In 2010, when the pope was still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, he told journalists that the Oscar-winning 1987 Danish film was his favorite movie. He’s talked about it in biographies and even used it as a teaching illustration in his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.” This appears to be a papal document’s first-ever citation of a movie.
The film tells the story of two sisters who belong to a strict Protestant sect that is so concerned with piety and following the rules that it loses its connection to joy. A woman named Babette, a political refugee from Paris, shows up at the sisters’ door, seeking work as a housekeeper. After winning the lottery, Babette, instead of returning to Paris, throws a lavish feast for the townspeople. Her neighbors are determined not to relish in the earthly pleasures she’s offering, but as they taste and drink from her table, they can’t help enjoy themselves. In the end, Babette’s efforts brings color and joy to the drab, austere town. She chooses to continue live among them as their servant.
There have been diverse interpretations:
- The Washington Post called Babette’s Feast “edible art,” a tour de force for the taste buds.
- Marjorie Baumgarten, writing in the Austin Chronicle, called it the “food in film” equivalent of Valhalla.
- Christopher Null at filmcritic.com sees in Babette’s Feast a seminal work about repressed emotions and self-doubt.
A foodie film? A gloomy story of repression?
Well, yes but….for a Christian, the parallel to the Eucharist, to a heavenly Feast, is striking. In her sacrifice, her pouring out of her resources in an expansive love, Babette is a riveting Christ-figure. The satiating meal, an earthly parallel to the heavenly banquet, is eucharistic. And the grace it imparts, the rich outpouring of emotion among the gloomy Danish congregants, mirrors the spiritual life-giving nourishment of the Eucharist.
Mirror of the spiritual life-giving nourishment of the Eucharist.
Babette is the complete giver who delights in cooking and serving and in the joy that the diners experience. She gives her time, her skills, her artistry – and all her money – to make the beautiful feast. The sisters are amazed that Babette has spent all her money – but Babette replies that she is an artist and this kind of cooking and hospitality has been her life. The final song and the sisters’ words to Babette about angels rejoicing because of her artistry highlight the beauty of the friendship and the experience of eucharist and reconciliation.
This classic has long been recognized for Eucharistic themes. Pope Francis see it also speaking of what has become the hallmark of his papacy – Mercy.
Recently, the Pope mentioned the Danish film while speaking with Avvenire, bringing it up in response to questions about those who criticized his ecumenical endeavors. Pope Francis compared the rigid behavior of those opposed to his ecumenical outreach to the rigid townspeople portrayed in Babette’s Feast.
In Amoris laetitia, the pope writes:
The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: “Ah, how you will delight the angels!” It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centered, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit.
One of Babette’s dinner guests, Lorenz Lowenhielm, speaks of Pope Francis’ favorite theme of “mercy” as he reflects on the effect of the generous meal on his small community of believers:
“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.”
Babette’s Feast could be called a film sacramental experience. We can draw on Old Testament imagery of banquets, symbol of God’s lavish love, with the delicious meats and ‘the fine strained wines’ which give joy to the human heart. That is certainly the function of the wines in the film. The guests, who really don’t want to partake of the banquet – it seems too rich, perhaps ‘worldly’ to them – are gradually drawn into the feast, eating and drinking, talking and laughing. Of course, the Church has understood these images as Eucharistic as well, the culmination of the imagery of vines and vineyards: ‘I am the vine…’
The kingdom of heaven is like a banquet!
If we believe that can we be drawn into reconciliation in spite of ourselves when we recognize how much mercy we have received?
Compiled from sources:
- https://www.misacor.org.au/index.php/emagazine/current-news/255-pope-francis-and-babettes-feast Peter Malone MSC
- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pope-francis-babettes-feast_us_583dd721e4b04b66c01c115b Carol Kuruvilla
- http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2014/02/babettes-feast-pope-francis-favorite-film-and-mine/ Kathy Schiffer