11 June 2007

Movie and Theology: Babette's Feast

An international movie from the eighties (I’m behind in trends), this movie portrays where mercy and truth meet and the joy of grace. I will tell you the story, though I hope you watch it. I knew the story before I saw it and enjoyed it. It is slow, but there is a peace in its movement.
The story, set in the 1870s during the French Revolution, is about two austere women who are the daughters of a beloved pastor in a small Scandinavian village and the maid that comes to them. The pastor had died, and the two sisters struggle to keep those left of the congregation together when factions and disputes threaten to shred it. Martina (named for Martin Luther) and Phillipa (for Luther’s friend, Phillip Melangthon) exceed in their good works toward others, taking care of the poor and the forgotten. They love serving God in their simple lives, and they gave up much to do so (including love, money, and fame). After all, their father taught them that the pleasures of this world are distraction from doing God’s work.
One day, a refugee from the French Revolution shows up at their door with a letter from a lover of one of the sisters (to be honest, I never knew which one was which, but it didn’t matter). Her husband and son had been killed. Would they take this woman in? She’s a cook. The sisters tell the woman that they have no money to support a cook, but Babette begs to be taken in, to serve them for free. Moved by her plea, they give in. They teach her to speak the language, cook their food, namely ale bread and fish (which had been dried and needs to soak to cook), and she does. Every day she serves them, though you can tell that the food is distasteful to her. She haggles prices, multiplying the small income of the sisters and allowing them to better serve others. Her one connection to France is a lottery ticket, which a friend renews for her daily.
Fourteen years later, a letter from France arrives, announcing that Babette has won the lottery, 10,000 francs (in that day, quite a bit). The sisters congratulate her, but lament her loss. She is part of the family, and they don’t want to lose her.
Meanwhile, the hundredth anniversary of the sisters’ father (beloved pastor) approaches, and they want to celebrate. A simple meal, as they usually have, followed by coffee. The congregation has deteriorated into petty fights and ancient grudges, and their hope is that this remembrance will knit them back together. Babette asks one favor, the only favor she has asked since she arrived. Let her make the meal, a French meal. They assent, although they have their doubts. Then she must meet her nephew, who owns the boat that first brought her to the village, to make arrangements for the food.
When she returns, she brings fruit and baking supplies and fine dishes and live quail and turtle and a block of ice and the finest wine. Upon sight of the turtle (that looks as if it hailed from the Galapagos Islands), one of the sisters dreams that the meal is from the devil, a witch’s hex. She gathers the others in the church and tells them the dilemma. What has she brought upon their heads? She only wished to grant one favor. They, knowing the transitory nature of such earthly pleasures, agree to go ahead with the meal, but vow that their tongues will be rendered tasteless and not one world will be said about the meal.
Babette slaves over the meal, taking care over each detail. The guests arrive, the congregation and one general, who comes with his aunt. The general has traveled the world over and has developed a distinguishing palette.
Each course is served with a separate wine. They drink the wine and eat the food without comment, as promised, except for the general. He exclaims over each dish and declares the wine the finest he has ever tasted. Real turtle soup! And what turtle soup! Have you ever tasted anything like it? Yes, they answer, much snow is expected this year. He looks confused and returns to his dish. In the kitchen is the coach driver of the general’s aunt (the only nonsimpleton in the village) and a village boy who acts as the waiter. These two receive the “crumbs from the table” and thoroughly enjoy the meal, letting Babette know of its wonder.
In the dining room, the main course comes, each dish its own quail served in a bread bowl with some manner of sauce. The general is shocked. Why, this is [insert fancy French name here]. And he tells the story of a chef, a woman chef at that, at Café Anglais, an expensive restaurant in Paris, who invented this dish. Her cooking, tales tell, and this general confirms, brings together the body and soul and makes eating a love affair. The table nods, dismayed at his use of the term “love affair.” They continue to eat, and as the meal goes on, the old friends laugh together over old fights, bless one another, and remember the teachings of the minister, who taught them love and mercy. The general stands to give a speech. We chase after many things, he says, but here mercy and truth come together, righteousness and bliss kiss. By dessert, the participants all smile their enjoyment of the meal and drink. One frumpy lady, clad in black, as they all are, sips the water, makes a face, then returns to the wine.
After they all leave singing, the sisters rush into the kitchen. What a wonderful meal! Everyone adored it! We will remember this when you return to Paris, they say.
I will not be returning to Paris, Babette says. There is no one left waiting. They are all dead. And I have no money.
But the 10,000 francs!
Gone. Spent.
They look at the dishes and the vestiges of the meal.
I was the chef at Café Anglais, she explains. A meal for 12 costs 10,000 francs.
The sisters don’t understand why she would spend everything for them and go back to poverty.
An artist is never poor. I didn’t do it only for you.
The sisters, one of whom is a singer who gave up the stage for the village, understand and tell her that this is not the end. Someday she will be the great artist God meant her to be, and she will awe the angels.
Tears, tears flowing at this point. Mine, I mean. A beautiful story. It tells of God’s joy in us, the beauty of not just extending mercy, as the sisters always did with a cheerful heart, but in receiving grace, and how in the reception, we bring joy to others. It portrays relationships and the joy in them, rather than the austerity we strive for. (Huh, I’m sounding Kierkegaardesque again. Sorry. Old habits.) It tells of the artist and of service and the peace in creating. And there is this idea that who God created me to be, who I take joy in being, that person will shine, giving joy to others for eternity. Now, in this life, I have the opportunity to be a piece of that. Which is why I’m back at my computer now and leaving you to write.


Elaina said...

This is a great movie. I didn't see it when it came out. But in a Biola U. art class during a section on film, my prof Margie...can't remember her last name, made us watch this in class. I'm so glad she did! I should watch it again. Thanks for the reminder!

Jennifer Tiszai said...

I just unpacked this book the other day. I haven't read it or seen the movie but have wanted to for a long time.

tranthegirl said...

I also liked this movie very much. Stumbled across it at the public library. It's been a while, I should see it again.
But you know i LOVE the concept of Being all God created you to be & human artistry glorifying the Creator.

Erin said...

SUCH a good movie! And so fun to relive it through your blog. :)