Sunday, February 5, 2012

Film Review: "Babette's Feast", A Culinary Conversion

Film poses one of the most difficult series of questions for the Catholic family.  What is the role of the movie in the home?  Is there a place for film in the Catholic home at all?  If so, what sort of films?  How often? etc.  Certainly the greatest danger is that film does not pose a line of questions for us at all.  This, I fear, is commonly the case.  Film is such a common artistic medium that it seems fundamentally radical to a.) see it as problematic and to b.)  not indulge in it.  As with all modern technology, the greatest danger is that, as our lives become saturated with it, it remains unthought.

Why is film problematic?  Because it is immediately powerful.  It generates a field in which we find ourselves.  I think this is doubly the case for children.  Is it worth the risk, then?  For the right movie, I think so.

So what constitutes the "right movie"?  

I remember one family from my childhood parish who had a distinct approach to the whole issue: no one in the family would ever watch anything that they deemed was innapropriate for the youngest member of the family. This always struck me as absurd.  Simply because a movie is not appropriate for a two-year-old does not mean that it is objectively inappropriate.  Andrei Rublev, for example, rated as number one on the Vatican's list for religious films, is not appropriate for any two-year-olds or, for that matter, many adults.  

It is also quite clear that the movie rating system is absolutely unsatisfactory.  This rating method is, for one thing, rather reductionist:  a film's appropriateness is gauged entirely by the compartmentalized atoms of the work.  Is there a sex scene?  Is there foul language?  Is there violence?  What degree of violence?  Does someone smoke a cigarette?  Naturally, these aspects are not inessential to the movie as an entire work, but that is precisely what should be considered: the movie as a single whole.  There are many movies that do not have any sex, foul language, violence or cigarretes that are not appropriate for any viewer.  Some of the best films contain several of these aspects.  Movies speak.  What are they saying?

Babette's Feast is, we would argue, one of the greatest films ever made.  Set in a 19th Century village in Jutland and populated by a strict Protestant sect, the bleak backdrop cannot withstand the evident presence of grace.  The presence of grace is not confined to the interior substance of the film: the director was certainly not a Catholic (he was one of primary advocates of the legalization of pornography in Denmark), and the author of the original book was an agnostic (more about that here).  As such, the film is a near perfect case of art transcending the artist.  Babette's Feast ranked high on the Vatican's list of 45 best films, under the category "Religion."

Perhaps one of the most singular strengths of this movie is that it realizes the true role of the artist: to express beauty in the form of a providential gift. As noted by Blessed John Paul II in his 1999 "Letter to Artists," "Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: 'Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!'"

Still, it is the careful study of humanity that makes Babette's Feast a masterpiece. As the narrator says, "Babette’s presence in the house of the two sisters can only be explained through the hidden regions of the heart." The characters in the film illustrate the tragic flaws, the laughable habits and the deepest capacity of the human person. On the one hand, one cannot avoid smiling a bit at the expense of the villagers from the film.  Their world appears to be a very alien one: it is cold, drab, flavorless, distant from God (despite the fact that he is referenced frequently).  Yet perhaps, even as we begin to characterize this setting, these characters, we come to realize how similar we are, how parallel our posture is to these caricatures.

We too (in a way that is doubtlessly more significant than we may be prepared to acknowledge) have forgotten how to feast.  Simultaneously, though never separately, we are rarely engaged in a sacramental world.  We live in a context that has relinquished its daily sacramental character.

There is, perhaps, one important distinction between ourselves and these villagers however.  The villagers, as small as their world may be, accept the stranger, Babette, into their homes.  This moment of openness is responded to by a gift, a feast so transcendent that the villagers cannot possibly have the palate to appreciate it.  However, the gift is not wasted upon them.  The villagers are given an authentically spiritual experience (now sacramental) that forges them as a community and draws them closer to the divine.  If we could but allow the stranger that is our own humanity to our table, what feast might grace prepare for us?

Ultimately, Babette's Feast is a film about gift in the service of beauty. In a moment of crisis, albeit a humble one,  it is Babette's total gift that provides a shift, a turning in the hearts of the villagers. Interestingly, it is the gift of the artist that allows them to see what has always been the case. After the dinner, Phillipa observes that "The stars have moved closer," to which Martina replies, "Perhaps they move closer every night." The gift of the artist allows us to see what permeates the everyday but is nevertheless often forgotten. It is the ability to make visible (or palateable) the invisible, the intangible. In this sense, the artistic gift is an image of the mystery of the Incarnation.

As a wife and mother, this film bade me ask the question: Could not the home itself be the palette? We  are told that the chef of the Cafe Anglais had the ability to "transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite." Like the dinner table, the home is the place where the two collide, where the physical and spiritual emerge not as dualistic enemies but intimate allies. And yet this gift can only emerge through a sincere gift of self. For after all, as the general says in his final toast: 

"And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us, and everything have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together; and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."

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