Criterion Commentaries: “Babette’s Feast”
In 2013, a writer for the New York times dismissed Pope Francis’s reveal of his favorite movie as a “cute” bit of trivia. The fact that the Pope had named Babette’s Feast, a 1987 Danish adaptation of a story by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen), as his top flick did not reveal “much interesting theology,” said the reporter.
It doesn’t take a film scholar to know that it means something when the world’s top Catholic chooses a movie about Dutch Protestants as his favorite. A closer look at the film suggests what, exactly, it may say about the Pope’s theology, thought by many to be even more radical and reformist than John Paul II’s.
Through food, Babette’s Feast tells a quiet but powerful story of cultural exchange in one of the world’s most insular places. In the 19th century, in a remote Calvinist community on the Jutland peninsula, two sisters grow up as the daughters of a devout minister who is a shepherd to a small but querulous flock. The sisters are the focus of the film’s first act, which has a convenient, ad hoc symmetry; as the most radiant members of their community, each sister attracts an important and powerful suitor from the outside world, but in short order each one rejects her chance to leave in favor of a life of celibacy and ministering.
Little is seen or heard of the sisters’ inner lives, even later in life when they take over their father’s role as head of the church. Do they make each other laugh? Do they get on each others’ nerves? They have the sanctity of angels but also angels’ lack of humanity, and as characters they ring hollowly. Thankfully, this ceases to be a problem when the movie ceases to be about them.
After a time lapse of many decades, achieved with some unusually convincing age makeup, Babette arrives. A mysterious refugee from one of Paris’s blood-in-the-streets conflicts, she comes during an appropriately dramatic (and, again, convenient) rainstorm that portends upheaval.
The movie and its world have been so relentlessly quiet and contained that the mere arrival of a new and exotic element midway through is enough to instantly and permanently change the focus of the narrative and of every character we have met. Suddenly the movie is Babette’s story, but the implications of her arrival are played out carefully, piece by piece, over a long period of years. She adapts from whatever kind of life she enjoyed before, and indications are it was a comfortable one, to the spartan lifestyle of a geographically and socially marginal town.
As with the sisters, we learn precious little about Babette’s inner self. Apart from a brief glimpse of her tiny, barely-furnished attic room, how she spends her private time is largely unknown. Her character, like the sisters’, is revealed only through her interactions with others. Whereas their dealings with men had revealed only spiritual stoicism, Babette’s hint at powers that are earthly, sociable, and epicurean; she expertly charms the town’s merchants to get deals on fish and bacon. It is no wonder that the way she repays the sisters for their fourteen years of kind harborage is with a feast.
The unprecedented quality of the feast and its presentation is a wonder to behold. The ingredients arrive live, and the drinks come in bottles of legendary vintage. Feast preparation takes up the bulk of the film’s final act, and is the stuff of raw, fleshy mortality: the blood and skin and bones of young quail, the writhing and gasping of an enormous tortoise. The sisters’ quaint kitchen, previously home to simple bread and ale, is transformed into a decadent and sanguinary larder. Their bare house and plain table become stage to an unforgettable parade of exquisite dishes that are, quite clearly, priceless.
Because we have learned to study every interaction for meaning, and because the distinction between Babette’s worldview and that of the sisters is so dramatically demarcated through the food they make, the stakes of this feast to end all feasts feel enormous. The sisters and their followers fear that good food and drink will cloud their spiritual focus, but for Babette’s Herculean labor to go unappreciated would be a cruel blow, felt not only by her but by us. The tension is relieved through a bit of dry but deeply satisfying humor: a secular man, one of the sister’s long-ago rejected suitors, is on hand to appreciate with mounting incredulity what the other diners try to ignore.
The sisters’ father once said, rather mystically, that God’s path sometimes leads across rivers. Babette crossed a significant cultural boundary when she left Paris for rural Denmark, and in the end she asks her adoptive community to make an equally great deviation from their established ways. The message of the story is that it is OK to stray from what is comfortable and even from what one thinks is preferable. The choices we make can lead to unexpected outcomes, and sometimes we arrive where we are supposed to be by strange and accidental paths. Babette’s Feast, like the older but thematically similar Lilies of the Field, inhabits a very specific place and time, but its inducement to enjoy the diversity of the world is endlessly applicable.
Perhaps it is too much to suggest that the film deserves some credit for the relatively worldly, tolerant rhetoric that has won Pope Francis so many admirers from across religious and political spectra. Yet his praise for the movie is consistent with his apparent sympathies and suggests that he is a man of good taste—perhaps in more ways that one.
Babette’s Feast vs. Lilies of the Field
Like Babette, Sidney Poitier‘s Homer has murky origins. We meet him as he arrives at the southwest desert convent where a group of German nuns are trying to build a church. Unlike Babette, he thinks he’ll be moving on in the morning, but like Babette he winds up staying for the long haul. The scene where the Baptist Homer teaches the Catholic women to sing a hand-clapping, knee-slapping southern spiritual is so good the movie uses it twice. There is much more tension between Homer and the nuns than there is between Babette and the Danish sisters, but the celebration of diversity and mutual appreciation is the same in both films. Babette’s Feast carries it farther and is more artful in execution, and wins this matchup handily.
Babette’s Feast vs. Out of Africa
Two of the best period pieces of the 1980s are both based on Isak Dinesen stories. Out of Africa was the more feted of the two, winning seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards for 1985. I like Out of Africa, but I love Babette’s Feast. Out of Africa is about more than a doomed love affair, but that core aspect of it is too familiar to be as richly satisfying as the more creative, culinary approach to storytelling in Babette’s Feast.
Babette’s Feast vs. Food, Inc.
I didn’t care for Food, Inc. Regardless of whether I agree with the content, I find polemical, preachy documentaries off-putting. But one thing about Food, Inc. that has stayed with me is that dead-eyed freak who runs the organic ranch and drones on about how his method of slaughtering pigs and chickens is better than the factory farm method. Maybe so, but it’s still gross. We don’t actually see Babette kill the tortoise or the birds she serves, but we see the tortoise just before and the chickens just after, and it’s appropriately disturbing but also thrilling. I’m a vegetarian, but I’d make an exception for Babette’s food. I wouldn’t for that creepy rancher, no matter how ethical his meat is. I wonder what that says about me.