Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Words on a Feast

The film Babette’s Feast is as humble as its titular character. It’s little-known, but well-respected by those who do, excellently executed by every actor and crew member, and leaves the viewer satisfied and hopeful, wanting to participate fully in the beautiful meal and community displayed.

I won’t divulge every plot point of Babette’s Feast, but I will include enough spoilers to say you really should watch this movie. Watching it should change the way you view humility, hospitality, service and sacrifice. Even if I do “spoil” the movie for you, watch it anyway. Babette’s Feast has many layers to it, so the more you see it the more you’ll appreciate it.

Babette’s Feast is set in the 19th century on a remote Danish island and follows two sisters whose father started a strict Christian sect. As the film unfolds, the setting changes back and forth from the past where the pastor of this congregation is actively leading and shaping his community with the help of his young, beautiful, devoted daughters and the present where the pastor is deceased, the sisters are elderly, and the congregation is slowly dying off.

This congregation believes enjoyment leads to sin because it puts the focus on their enjoyment of the experience and not on their service to God and their community. The members of this congregation wear dark, drab colors which mirror their harsh and gray surroundings. Their food is plain in the extreme, since any flavor added to delight the senses takes the focus off of God and onto how delicious the food is or the skill of the cooks. While this congregation’s view of piety is perhaps excessive and legalistic, they do a very good job of caring for each other. Many scenes show the sisters feeding shut-ins and giving what little money they have to the poor.

This little community is so isolated it makes a perfect refuge for three visitors – a famous opera singer, a troublesome army officer, and a mysterious woman named Babette – to hide away from their respective problems. The two men, who visit the island while the founding pastor is still alive and the sisters are young, struggle with their views of what is truly valuable compared with the simple contentment found in the village. As they work to understand, and as each man falls in love with one of the sisters, they may ask themselves, “How can these people be happy without the pursuit of wealth, power and fame? If these things are not necessary for finding joy and fulfillment in life, has my pursuit of them been foolish?” Both men eventually leave the island feeling unworthy of the sisters’ love and ashamed of the choices they’ve made in their lives, but they also leave with a better appreciation of how to attain true happiness.

Babette comes to the island from Paris looking for refuge from a war much later when the sisters are older. The opera singer, elderly and now seeing the value of a simpler life without the overactive pursuit of riches, sends Babette there to serve the sisters saying simply she is a “good cook.” Babette learns how the sisters keep their house, care for their community and their views on sacrifice and humility. After 14 years of quiet and faithful service, Babette has made the lives of the sisters and the whole community better. She uses her skills to cook better meals for the poor, make better deals with produce and meat suppliers who do business on the island, and the sisters end up with more money left over than they ever had before. However, the congregation is fraught with infighting, accusations and bitterness for wrongs done decades ago.

Babette’s only link to her former life in Paris is a lottery ticket the opera singer renews for her every year. One day, news comes that she won the lottery and now has 10,000 francs, enough to leave the island and re-start her more luxurious life in Paris. To thank the sisters for all the kindness they’ve shown her, and to celebrate their father’s upcoming 100th birthday, Babette asks them if she can have some time off to prepare a real French dinner for the whole congregation. The sisters are reluctant at first, but eventually grant her request. She leaves for Paris to collect all the ingredients she needs, and comes back with the most exotic food this community has ever seen. They look in horror as Babette leads a caravan of hired help down the middle of the village carrying quails, pineapple, mango, figs, rare wine and spirits, caviar and a live turtle making its own way to the kitchen. Horrified at the potential sin of flavor and indulgence, the entire congregation agrees to eat the meal out of appreciation for Babette, but never to speak of the meal itself. The army officer, now an accomplished general, returns for the birthday celebration, as well as to visit his former love interest. Having lived with the finer things for many years and being unaware of the “vow of silence” the congregation has taken, he sits at the simple and elegant table excited for the meal to come. The rest of the congregation, however, still bickers over past wrongdoing, all the while resolute not to enjoy this “sinful” meal.

All are silent as the meal begins. A teenage boy serves each course, while Babette stays faithfully in the kitchen adding final touches and giving instructions about how to serve each course and which rare and fantastic wine goes in each glass. The general tries to speak with several in the conversation about how magnificent the meal is, noting the skill it takes to prepare such delicacies, the rarity of the ingredients and how truly delicious each course is. He compares it to the greatest meal he’s had in his life at the legendary Café Anglais in Paris. Because of their earlier agreement, the congregation members answer back with talk of the weather and quotes from their beloved pastor’s sermons.

During the meal, though, something transformative happens. The general is the only one to ever experience a meal like this before and knows the proper way to enjoy each course. The congregation begins to watch him as he switches from one utensil to another, how he eats this piece of fruit or sips that sauce from his plate. Still not speaking about the meal itself, you see each member of the congregation start to enjoy flavors they’ve never imagined. One woman in particular enjoys a drink of wine, then a glass of water, only to realize she now prefers the wine she always forbade herself to have. Those same old arguments which divided families moments earlier are resolved, wrongs are forgiven, and the community comes back together. The movie viewer is no longer focused on the dark, harsh weather outside or the drab house the congregation is gathered in, but on the vibrant colors of the fruit, the deep red wine, the mahogany-colored roasted meat, and the smiles on everyone’s faces.

After a moving speech from the general, which I will quote in full at the end, a now joyful congregation leaves the table and gathers outside around their well holding hands and singing a hymn. As everyone leaves to their homes, one of the more senile members of the congregation lifts his hands to heaven and utters a still-sincere, “Hallelujah.” The sisters rush in to Babette to tell her how amazing her gift has been to them, and how much they will miss her when she leaves them for Paris. Only then does Babette reveal who she really is. She was the chef at Café Anglais the general revered so much, and she spent her entire lottery winnings on this dinner. The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice and lament that she will always be poor if she stays with them. Satisfied and finally at peace, Babette answers, “An artist is never poor.”

Babette’s Feast subtly but compellingly shows the power of hospitality and sacrifice to heal brokenness and bring people together. Babette gave up her comfortable and easy lifestyle, her friends, prestigious job, money, wealth of ingredients, the lottery winnings that would’ve gotten her off of that island, and everything else she ever knew to continue serving these sisters who showed her such kindness and friendship. She is fully aware she will never go back to her life in Paris. She’ll never be able to cook a meal like that again, one she finds such satisfaction and artistic expression in serving. Babette chooses to sacrifice all that and more to stay in this community. That community, fractured and on the verge of collapse, was brought back together by her act of service and the redemptive act of sharing a meal together. They are confronted with Babette’s sincere hospitality and love for them, and their response is reconciliation. This is no small feat, mind you. Throughout the film we see the elderly sisters pleading with their congregation to stop fighting and show each other grace, but their pleas were not heard over the sound of the congregation’s increasing bitterness. It was only because of the grace shown to them around the table that allowed them to be graceful to each other.

This is why it’s so important for us to open our homes to our own communities. Rather than be closed off from the rest of the world, let us invite people in to share in our lives and share in theirs in return. True hospitality is more than inviting someone over to share a meal or making sure your guests don’t have to lift a finger to help. It’s a sacrifice, a pouring out of yourself to someone else, sharing each other’s stories and being in community with them. True hospitality is grace, and we could all stand to show each other more grace. Let me be clear, you don’t have to serve Blinis Demidoff au Caviar or Caille en Sarcophage at your next dinner party like Babette did to be hospitable. Jackie and I were just recently shown great hospitality and grace while eating frozen pizza and drinking $3 wine. The point is to share yourself with someone else. To me, sharing a meal just enhances this point. It says I care about your survival and I’m willing to use some of my own family’s limited resources to ensure it. Sharing a meal says you’re a part of my family. This is why Babette’s Feast is such an important film, and why I bring it up here – because it illustrates the redemptive power of gathering around the table together.

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, my friends, is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble. We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.” – General Loewenhielm