September 28, 2012

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Watching an all-time favorite film can be a religious experience

Cynthia DewesOur Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis recently sponsored an evening centered on the 1987 Academy Award-winning film, Babette’s Feast.

Benedictine Father Julian Peters led a lively discussion after we viewed the movie, which is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. This famous Danish author is herself the subject of another popular film, Out of Africa.

Babette’s Feast is about two older spinsters in a past century who continue leading an austere Protestant religious community long after the death of their father, who founded it.

The members practice self-denial as the righteous path to salvation, denying themselves all sensual pleasures. No alcohol, no rich food, no music except for somber hymns. To emphasize the mood of austerity, their home is a tiny village on the bleak northern seacoast of Denmark, marked by frigid, violent weather.

The beautiful and talented sisters abandon youthful dreams in order to satisfy what they perceive as their Christian duty as defined by their father.

One gives up marriage to a dashing young army officer with whom she has fallen in love. The other girl’s suitors summarily dismissed by the father, whose displeasure also causes her to reject a promising singing career in a distant city.

Instead, the girls embrace Christian virtue by bringing daily food to shut-ins and conducting prayer services for the community.

Into this strict group suddenly appears Babette, a refugee from France’s civil wars, whose husband and son have been murdered. She prevails upon the sisters to give her room and board in return for her services as a cook and servant. They agree.

Unknown to them, Babette is an accomplished French chef, and her culinary talent soon pleases the sisters as well as thrilling their charity clients who enjoy tasty meals instead of the sisters’ wretched gruel. The townspeople profit from Babette’s skills as well since she is a shrewd shopper whose efforts soon improve the quality and prices of local food.

Years later, Babette learns one day that she has won the lottery for a fortune of 10,000 francs. The sisters expect that she will leave them now that she has means, but she surprises them by asking if she may create a feast for them and their community in honor of their late father and in gratitude for their kindness in taking her in. They agree reluctantly, not wishing her to spend her money on them.

Babette orders strange foods and wines, linens, crystal and china. As the preparations progress, the sisters fear their community’s virtue may be jeopardized by partaking of the luxurious food, not to mention wine. Their friends assure them that they will politely eat Babette’s feast, but not corrupt themselves by enjoying it.

On the appointed evening, the guests arrive, including a lady accompanied by her nephew, the previously rejected army officer. Cautiously, they begin the meal with fresh turtle soup and a choice wine.

The worldly officer, now a general, appreciates the superb food and exclaims over the high quality of the wine. So the others, who are secretly enjoying everything, start to loosen up.

With course after course, wine after wine, the guests come to realize that pleasure can accompany God’s grace. As they chatter and laugh, old rivalries are smoothed over and old sins forgotten. Tenderness, warmth and reconciliation fill the room.

Babette’s feast is, in fact, a metaphor for the eucharistic feast in which God nourishes us with love and joy so that we might share these things with one another. And watching this movie is truly a religious experience.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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