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<Babette's Feast> (Directed by Gabriel Axel, Eng/Chinese subtitles, 105 mins, Denmark)

by Fr. Peter Malone, MSC

SYNOPSIS
Two sisters, Martine and Philippa, live in a remote Jutland village during the latter half of the 19th century. Their father had founded a pietistic and puritanical Lutheran sect and had ruled over it with some severity.

After his death, the sisters maintained the sect. They had a small number of followers who were initially devoted but, over the years, they began to fall out with one another.

When they were young, both sisters wished to marry. Martine was in love with a cavalry officer, Lorens Lowenheilm. Philippa, who had a beautiful voice, loved Achille Papin, an opera singer. Their father had sternly forbidden the marriages.

With a recommendation from Papin, Babette Hersant, a cook from the Parisian Cafe Anglais, comes to live with them a refugee from the French political turmoil of 1871. She serves the sisters faithfully and they come to depend on her.

When she wins the lottery, Babette offers to make them a dinner, a banquet. They and the congregation are reluctant but, in order not to offend Babette, they agree to attend but decide that they will not taste or relish any of the food or drink. Lorens Lowenheilm and his mother are also to attend.

Babette's feast is magnificent. The guests assemble and their resistanceis slowly overcome. They enjoy the feast very much, so much so that they confess how they have offended and cheated one another over the years. They go out of the house and dance in a circle of life.

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.

COMMENTARY
Babette's Feast is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen whom Meryl Streep portrayed in Out of Africa). Originally set in Norway, it has been transferred by writer-director, Gabriel Axel, back to Blixen's Denmark, to a remote village on the Jutland coast where the Lutheran tradition is strict and severe. This might bring back memories to cinema buffs of renowned Danish director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and his movies like Day of Wrath and Ordet.

Stephane Audran, star of so many French movies, especially those of Claude Chabrol, brings beauty and conviction to the role of the exiled cook, Babette. The rest of the cast, especially the two sisters, bring to life this religious community, showing its strengths and its weaknesses and taking the audience into a different cultural and religious milieu and into a transforming and transcendent experience.

The sequence of the feast itself lasts for half an hour. There is a rich build up with the preparation of the dishes, the serving of the drinks and the gradual overcoming of inhibitions on the part of the guests. The audience appreciates this so much that the visuals of the food and drink and the drama mean that the audience vicariously enjoys the feast – and shares in the ultimate experiences of grace.

Babette's Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1987.

BABETTE AS A CHRIST-FIGURE
Significant characters can be seen to resemble the Jesus of the Gospels. They can be called Christ-figures.

The Christ-figures should be interpreted through biblical criteria. The Christ-figures can be seen as redeemers, saviours and liberators.

There is a long tradition in the Jewish scriptures of redeemers, those who suffer and die on behalf of others. The most impressive and profound example of this tradition is the prophetic servant of the Second Isaiah, ...he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed. (53:5) (9)

The Gospel passion narratives rely on familiarity with the servant songs of Second Isaiah, often using detail from the songs as `short-hand' for describing Jesus' suffering. In Isaiah 50:6, the servant is struck on the face, spat on, his beard pulled and his back beaten. In this same way, Jesus' torture is described in the Gospels (Mark 15: 16-20). The First Letter of Peter, 2:21-4, quotes Isaiah 53 explicitly.
In fact, the author uses the language of Christ-figure to exhort readers to be Christ-figures themselves: after speaking of suffering (in a passage about slaves being punished justly and unjustly), he states that ‘Christ suffered for you and left an example for you to follow the way he took’ (v.21).

The other tradition from the Jewish scriptures is that of saviours, those who transform others' lives or lead them into a new life. They range from Abraham, the patriarch migrating with his clan, to Moses leading the descendants of Abraham into the promised land. The climax is the vision in Daniel 7, where the Son of Man, representing the faithful people of Israel, comes on the clouds of heaven to receive the reward for those who had remained faithful to God's promises to Abraham, those who were faithful to the covenant between God and his people. This, of course, is Jesus' reference to Caiphas when Caiphas asks Jesus who he really is (Mt. 26:63-6). Jesus is the Son of Man who, after suffering like the servant, will be glorified by God and lead his faithful into the new, heavenly, risen life. Saviours empower others to a rising to new life.

Christ-figures, men and women (and other creatures of fiction like Hobbits) are ‘analogies’ of Jesus, images of Jesus, who can assist us in our attempts to depth some understanding of him.

Babette can be seen as a Christ-figure. A good woman, she has been exiled from her own country and been received by kind people and employed as a servant. In her service of the sisters, she emerges as a sviour-figure. In creating her feast, and spending all her money, like the widow in the Gospels, giving everything she had, she empowers the women and their guests to embrace a fuller quality of life, to forgive one another, to be reconciled and to be open to a world of grace.

DIALOGUE BETWEEN BABETTE'S FEAST AND LUKE'S GOSPEL OF MARTHA AND MARY

Babette is a perfect Martha figure who gives unstintingly in preparing her feast. The two sisters have been like Mary, listening to God. Now they must share in Babett'es feast and learn what joy, both human and divine, is like.

Luke does not give any menu items of Martha's meal for Jesus and his disciples. The point, of course, is not so much the menu but the heartfelt hospitality.

In the film, the two sisters willingly take Babette into their home. Although she is a servant in the household, she is a respected member, even confidante, of the sisters. She is foreign, has different customs (does not share the sisters' puritanical attitude to life - or to food) but she is still welcome. The final song of the film and the sisters' words to Babette about angels rejoicing because of her artistry highlight the beauty of the friendship.

Martha and Mary are hospitable and welcome Jesus and his disciples into their home. Martha has the touch of the work ethic about her and judges people accordingly. Mary, on the other hand, knows the value of listening and contemplation.

Babette has a better perspective on providing a meal than Martha does. Martha frets, is preoccupied and is not hesitant to rouse on Jesus, let alone Mary. 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 result of such a generous feast for the diners is that they mellow. The shared food binds them together and they listen to one another. And the grace of the feast is that they can listen to God, contemplate the loving God rather than their fierce God. They confess, ask pardon of each other and reconciliation. In the Gospel, contemplation is the gift that Mary possesses and that Jesus advises Martha to acquire. When we listen to God, we know how we are called to go into action.

KEY SCENES AND THEMES
* The sisters' father and his control of his congregation. His harsh Christianity, moral rectitude and puritanical approach to pleasure and joy. The sisters' devotion to their father, their singing, their hospitality to the congregation. Filippa and her delight in singing with Achille Papin, Martine and her love for the cavalry officer. The influence of their father and their rejecting their suitors.

* Babette's arrival and their kind hospitality. Her place in the household, her work, her shopping, the response of the people in the village. Babette winning the lottery, her decision to make the feast, buying the ingredients and their preparation. The menu, the cooking, the boy assisting, each course and her attention to detail. The achievement of the feast and her satisfaction in giving and in accomplishing the feast.

* The congregation and their unwillingness to enjoy the feast, their transformation, their sharing with one another, confessing, pardoning, Lorens and Martine, the reconciliation and the dancing circle of life.


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