Wednesday, June 20, 2007
There are many religious images in the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast and one is Babette herself. A French expatriate who sought political refuge under the custody of two elderly and pious sisters, Babette came in a mysterious and humble way to integrate herself in the community, assuming the life of a housekeeper and cook (which she really is, and a great one at that) and ultimately spending all her prize from a lottery in order to throw a banquet for the religious sect the sisters’ strict father has founded.
For me, Babette’s image is religious because religiosity in a Christian sense is associated with such virtues as humility, service and self-sacrifice—qualities found in Christ as in other religious icons like Buddha and Mohammed. Like the Son of God who was sent to earth by God the Father, Babette arrived in Jutland, Denmark where she served as the sisters’ cook for fourteen years. Even as she was an excellent chef in France’s Café Anglais before, she humbly had herself taught by the sisters how to prepare the terribly tasteless fish soup they subsist on. It took a visiting general who used to relish a Parisian woman’s fabled culinary feast for the sisters to discover that the chef and Babette were one and the same. This stint of humility on the cook’s part is an act of Christian piety inasmuch as it is a requisite of selflessness. It shows that whatever one is or has, i.e. the chef’s culinary talent, one owes it to the Supreme Creator and not to oneself; hence, it should not be boasted but instead, should be taken humbly. Likewise, Babette’s fourteen years of service in the sisters’ household echoes the service of all the religious people the world over. Besides showing the obligatory selflessness, the French servant does her work for the welfare of the people around her, namely her mistresses and their tiny religious congregation. This runs parallel to the earthly activities of Jesus and Mohammed (and, eventually, their subsequent followers) who sought the people to serve and save them by introducing the one true God. Babette’s community service and the missionaries’ manifest religiosity because their work’s end is for the greater glory of God. Finally, Babette’s spending of all her lottery prize to provide a lavish meal for the congregation is a consummate act of self-sacrifice. While she could have used her money to return home, she chose to use it instead in preparing a sumptuous feast less as an expression of her gratitude to them and her artistry than as a loving gesture of self-giving. This is reminiscent of the crucified Christ’s giving up of his life for the world’s salvation, of Buddha’s renunciation of earthly desires and of Mohammed’s sacrifices despite nonbelievers’ persecution. These different forms of self-sacrifice express religiosity in that self-denial is a recognition of God’s supremacy and authority over one’s life.
Another image in the movie that manifests religiosity is the feast itself. The banquet is a reminder of the Last Supper, twelve sect members being on the table and Babette, busily preparing food in the kitchen, being the thirteenth. The epicurean delight of wine, bread, quail in sarcophagus, an enormous turtle, pastries, sauces, cake with fruits and liquor, grapes and figs is religious less obviously for the miracle that happened within the dining community than for its reflected liturgical and eucharistic rituals.
For me, this is religious since the miracle of sensual awakening via the heavenly banquet takes on a spiritual, fundamentally Christian plane. There was mutual forgiveness for committed sins in the past, as in the couple who kissed in reconciliation. Also, the general’s conscience examination is an erasure of his previous mistakes—a sort of recollection. Lastly, the congregation reminisced their original inspiration under their late minister’s leadership. All these are religious examples since they echo Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. The feast facilitated the death of their former lives so that new ones may be had by them. This reflects religiosity since a miracle—the luscious supper made by Babette—transpired in them in order to see life in a transformed light.