lørdag 2. januar 2021

Film Review: Babette's Feast and Catholicism

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There's always laughter and good red wine.
At least I've always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino! 

— Hilaire Belloc [1]

Babette's Feast is a 1987 Danish film, based on a 1950s short story by Danish author Karen Blixen. [2] The film is directed by Gabriel Axel, and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – ahead of, among others, the Norwegian Pathfinder. It is said to portray Catholicism in a positive light, [3] and Pope Francis has actually described it as his favorite film. [4] In this review, I will try to show how the film brings out some of the differences between Catholic and Protestant culture, and discuss how the feast itself can be understood as a sacramental sign of the heavenly wedding feast.

The plot of the film takes place around the middle and towards the end of the 19th century, primarily in Denmark. We are introduced to a small village on the windswept west coast of Jutland, where most of the population belongs to a 'devout sect' of puritanical (particularly austere and anti-Catholic) Protestants – more on this later. [5] The sect was founded by an old pastor, who presumably broke off from the Lutheran Church of Denmark and lives with his two young daughters, Martine and Filippa. To emphasise the strongly Protestant atmosphere of the village, we are told that they are named after the German Reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

Both Martine and Filippa possess a striking physical beauty, but in the puritanical sect, marriage and 'earthly love' are looked upon as 'empty illusions'. The old pastor wants his daughters to continue to assist him in his work, and therefore refuses to marry them to the young men who attend church in order to catch a glimpse of them. It is a typical feature of puritanical Protestantism that one views the body and the joys of this life as something inferior, as something one should probably stay away from in order to focus solely on the spiritual life. In this sense, it can be reminiscent of the Gnostic heresy, which teaches that the physical world is evil. Some have argued that this is precisely what Paul is referring to when he writes of a group of heretics who 'forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from food' (1 Tim. 4:3).

Then one day Lorens Löwenhielm, a young Swedish officer, visits his old aunt who lives at the manor house Nørre Vosborg in Jutland. While out riding near the small village, he sees Martine and is completely captivated by her. Lorens' aunt is acquainted with the congregation, and gives his nephew access to the pastor's house – so that he can get closer to Martine. But Lorens achieves no success with the courtship, and decides to return to Sweden. As his attempt to win the love of his life fails, he decides to fill his life with other things: 'I want to concentrate on my career, and one day I will cut a brilliant figure in a brilliant world.' He soon learns that this is vain, and 'all is vanity' (Eccl. 12:8).

We are then introduced to the French opera singer Achille Papin, who feels burned out towards the end of a long career. After a performance in Stockholm he is told about the west coast of Jutland, a place where he can enjoy the silence and the lapping of the waves. One day as he sits and looks out over the sea, he hears the sound of beautiful singing from the nearby church. He walks in, makes the sign of the cross – yes, he is a Catholic – and sits down in a pew. There he is captivated by the singing voice of the pastor's daughters, but most of all by the lovely Filippa. Achille makes a silent prayer to God, imagining a bright future: 'Almighty God, your mercy reaches to Heaven, and your justice goes to the bottom of the sea. Here is an opera primadonna, who will lay Paris at her feet.' After the service, Achille goes to visit the pastor's house, where the following conversation takes place (translated from French):
Achille: Good day, pastor. 
The pastor: Good day. 
Achille: I would like to take the young lady who lives here, as a student. She has a beautiful voice and can sing like an angel. That is important when you want to praise God. 
The pastor: Are you a papist? 
Achille: Yes, a Catholic... a papist.
It is not clear exactly why the pastor is asking this question. Maybe simply because the stranger is a Frenchman, but maybe also because he emphasises the importance of 'a beautiful voice' to praise God. Catholicism undeniably places a greater emphasis on beauty and the external, aesthetic dimension of the faith – think of liturgical vestments with gold and embroidery, stained glass windows, organ music and Gregorian chant in the Mass – unlike the puritanical Protestants with their mostly interior faith and simple, whitewashed churches. The old pastor at first seems shocked to have a genuine 'papist' (i.e., one who submits to the Pope in Rome) at his door, but he does invite Achille into his house. He even agrees to let him give singing lessons to Filippa.

Edifying hymns by Petter Dass are one thing, but the pastor gets worried when Achille and Filippa start singing love songs. One of these ends like this (again translated from French): 'It's you, it's you I love; our hearts love each other; love will unite us.' Achille kisses Filippa on the forehead and repeats with sincerity: 'Love will unite us.' He is in a happy mood after expressing his feelings for the woman he loves, but Filippa tells her father that she does not want to continue with the singing lessons. When Achille hears the bad news, he is heartbroken and leaves with the first boat back to Paris. From a puritanical standpoint, it can be considered sinful to express one's love in a 'worldly' way – that is, without explicit reference to God.

One stormy night many years later, Martine and Filippa – who are both still unmarried – are visited by a woman who seems to be doing poorly. She brings a letter from Achille Papin, which is read aloud by Filippa. Here follows an excerpt describing civil war-like conditions in the streets of Paris in 1871, from which the foreign woman has fled:
Do you remember me? When I think of you, my heart is filled with lilies. Will the memory of a Frenchman's affection move your heart to save a French woman's life? 
The unhappy Madam Babette Hersant, like my beautiful Empress, has had to flee from Paris. The civil war has raged in our streets. Madam Hersant's husband and son have been shot. She has barely escaped Galliffet's bloodstained hands. She has lost everything she owned and does not dare to stay in France.
It is Babette Hersant who has come to the small village. She is taught to cook for the old and sick in the village in the way that Martine and Filippa have done, but the food is not very inspiring: tasteless, boiled cod and so-called 'beer bread' – a kind of porridge made from dry bread, cooked in beer (which of course causes the alcohol to evaporate). However, Babette makes herself popular with the villagers by freshening up her food with herbs and other, more exciting ingredients. She denies being homesick, and says that her only remaining connection with France is 'a lottery ticket, which a faithful friend in Paris renews every year.' This will prove to be a very important detail.

Martine and Filippa wish to celebrate the birthday of their dear father, the old pastor, even though he is now dead. At the same time, they are outraged by the conflicts that have gradually arisen between the quarrelsome members of the congregation, and 'pray... so earnestly for peace and fellowship to reign here.' Even though the sisters had only intended for 'a very modest evening meal', Babette insists that she will make 'a proper French dinner' for the pastor's birthday. She has received a letter stating that she has won 10,000 francs in the lottery, and wants to pay for the dinner with her own money as a heartfelt gift to the sisters and the congregation. Therefore, she leaves to arrange the transport of the ingredients she will need.

Martine and Filippa immediately become skeptical when several crates of highly exotic ingredients appear on the beach – including quail, a cow's head and a large turtle. One of them exclaims in horror at the sight of a bottle of wine: 'Isn't that wine?' Babette answers calmly, but with wonder: 'It's Clous Vougeot 1845.' There is an obvious shock in the faces of Martine and Filippa, and at night they dream of hellfire consuming the cow's head and the turtle – and of Babette threatening to lead the whole village into perdition. Here the puritanical opposition to earthly pleasures is fully expressed, and shows the contrast to the Catholic way of life – an expression of which is to be found in the Book of Sirach, one of the so-called 'deuterocanonical' books: 'Wine is like life to men, if you drink it in moderation. What is life to a man who is without wine? It has been created to make men glad' (Sir. 31:27) .

At a meeting before the feast, Martine ominously says that the congregation has 'invited dangerous forces, which may bring us misfortune. I cannot even say what you will be given to drink ... or eat.' A member of the congregation comes up with a proposal that is agreed upon: 'We remain silent about all that is called food and drink.' Because of this, the congregation members do not say a single word about the food during the meal, although it is obvious how delicious it is. One of them expresses the general puritanical attitude: 'Man should not only refrain from, but also deny himself any thought of food and drink. Only then can he eat and drink in the right spirit.' This denial of pleasure in the goods of nature – that is, physical reality – is contrary to Scripture concerning God's creation: 'God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good' (Gen. 1:31). The Catholic Church, on the other hand, maintains the fundamental goodness of creation, despite the Fall. It is not 'totally depraved', just damaged and imperfect.

Lorens Löwenhielm, who has now become a general, is also present during the feast. He knows nothing about the congregation's plan, and therefore constantly praises both food and drink. Gradually, some of the guests also begin to soften up, and they openly express that they enjoy the food. The meal obviously has the power to resolve the conflicts that have previously plagued the congregation. People begin to refer to each other as brother and sister, forgiving their debtors and saying to them, 'God bless you!' The mood improves throughout the evening, and smiles appear in even the most ardent puritanical faces. Finally, the general rises to give a speech, uttering perhaps the most significant words of this entire film: 'Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.' This is a paraphrase of Psalm 85:10.

It is important to have a right understanding of these words, because they can be said to summarise the Catholic attitude to life, and at the same time emphasise how this differs from puritanical Protestantism. Catholicism is universal in the best sense (this is the meaning of the Greek word katholikos), and is therefore compatible with everything that is true, good and beautiful in the world. This means that the Church often says 'both/and', not 'either/or', in cases of apparent (not real) contradictions. For example: nature and grace, faith and reason, Scripture and Tradition, body and soul. No part of God's creation is left out by the One who 'makes all things new' (Rev. 21:5) in Himself. One of the greatest Protestant theologians of the last century, Karl Barth, is said to have referred to this as 'the terrible Catholic and'. [6]

The same attitude to life can also be found in General Löwenhielm's speech: there is no real contradiction between mercy and truth, righteousness and bliss. It is not at all necessary to be stern and melancholic, as the puritanical Protestants tend to be, to live a life in accordance with God's will. We know that Jesus 'came that they may have life, and have it abundantly' (John 10:10). And, as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons is quoted as saying: Gloria Dei homo vivens – 'The glory of God is man fully alive!' [7] Self-realisation – i.e., the realisation (or actualisation) of our inherent potential to become 'fully alive' and more human – is a natural and desirable part of being human, and should therefore not be looked down upon by Christians. But nature still needs grace to be perfected, for 'apart from me you can do nothing' (John 15:5). 

Finally, I would like to say a few words about Babette's feast itself. It might be easy for someone to say, after watching the film, that it is 'just' a dinner. And what is so special about that? But this is precisely the kind of reaction that a puritanical Protestant would have in common with an atheistic materialist, because both share a view of physical reality as something purely material and mechanistic – totally free of inherent purposes. The only difference is that the Protestant believes in God and the human soul as well, as necessary sources of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. As the Norwegian historian of ideas Trond Berg Eriksen writes in his introduction to Aristotle's Ethics:

The mechanisation of the conception of nature in [René] Descartes and [Isaac] Newton tells us what one refuses to look for in the world of nature... There is no meaning, truth, goodness, or purpose out there... All such things are created in our own self. Nature is not a beautiful order, as it was for Aristotle, or a book, as it had been for the Christians, but a machine, a piece of clockwork. This is the basic, modern prejudice... [8]

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has kept the Aristotelian doctrine of inherent purposes in nature in the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catholicism has also been described as a 'sacramental' worldview, where the physical elements of creation are seen as signs of underlying spiritual realities. Even the seemingly most ordinary things are created by God, and can therefore bring us closer to Him. The water in lakes, rivers, and waterfalls can wash our bodies clean, but also signifies a deeper purification of the soul – which is realised in the sacrament of baptism. Our earthly fathers point to our Father in Heaven, 'from whom every family [patria = fatherhood] in Heaven and on earth is named' (Eph. 3:15), and the earthly union of man and woman in marriage is a sign of the heavenly union of Christ and the Church.

So it is with food and drink. The physical food we eat every day not only nourishes our bodies, but points beyond itself to something that will give us spiritual nourishment: 'My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work' (John 4:34). This is true soul food. With the 'eyes of faith' we can look at Babette's feast as a true sign of the bliss that awaits us in Heaven. As the king says through his servants in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet: 'Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast' (Matt. 22:4). This should make us recognise the deep meaning of every meal we eat, especially when we share it with other people. The primary purpose of the meal is to nourish our bodies, but the secondary purpose is social bonding. The effect of this is shown in the reconciliation between the quarrelsome dinner guests.

That a film like Babette's Feast is capable of provoking the thoughts that I have tried to formulate (albeit quite insufficiently) in this post, can be nothing but a testimony to the quality of the film. Yet there are several aspects of its content that I have not examined here, or only in a very superficial way. For this reason – and because the film is also an audiovisual masterpiece – I recommend that you, good reader, watch Babette's Feast. Do it on the basis of what I have written here, and with these words of the Almighty in mind: 'Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lam' (Rev. 19:9). Amen. And, to quote one of the characters in the film: Hallelujah!


[1] Belloc, Hilaire. 'The Catholic Sun'. Date unknown.

[2] Babette's Feast. Directed by Gabriel Axel. Panorama Film International, 1987.

[3] 'Top 100 Pro-Catholic Movies'. National Catholic Register. Available at: http://www.ncregister.com/info/top_100_pro_catholic_movies.

[4] Kosloski, Philip. 'Why does Pope Francis want us to watch the movie 'Babette's Feast'?' Aleteia, 21 November 2016. Available at: https://aleteia.org/2016/11/21/why-does-pope-francis-want-us-to-watch-the-movie-babettes-feast/. Babette's Feast is so far the only film to be mentioned (and quoted) in an official papal document. Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia (19 March 2016), no. 129: '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.'

[5] I use the adjective 'puritanical' here, which I think it makes sense to use in reference to more than just the 16th and 17th century sect of English Puritans. Of course, there is considerable overlap with regard to the characteristics of Puritans on the one hand and puritanical Protestants – whether Calvinist or Lutheran (as in this film) – on the other.

[6] Quoted by Bishop Robert Barron in 'The Word on Fire Show - WOF 022: The Both/And of Catholicism'. YouTube, 4 August 2016. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pZ2bUdm9Uc.

[7] Saint Irenaeus of Lyon. Adversus Haereses, bk. 4, ch. 34.

[8] Eriksen, Trond Berg. 'Innledende essay', xxxvi. In Aristotle. Den nikomakiske etikk. Translated by Øyvind Rabbås and Anfinn Stigen. Oslo: Bokklubben Dagens Bøker, 1999.

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