Babette's Feast, the 1987 film by Danish director Gabriel Axel and based on a story by Karen Blixen*, was a feature in the 2006 Berlinale Talent Campus (BTC) sponsored by the French Embassy. This film was the opener under the category, “Celebrating Food in Film.”
I was thrilled to see this film on the schedule and made plans to make this event a priority. My curiosity was aroused as to how the BTC would choose to introduce the film. The location chosen for viewing was the theater in the French Embassy. Since the French Cuisine would be promoted in the film, the venue was ideal. I knew that one focal point in the film was obvious: the extensive meal BabetteHarsant (Stephane Audran) would prepare. Another aspect would be the cinematography to illustrate the eloquence of her feast. Both aspects were used to emphasize celebrating food in film with impeccable style. And, this was indeed the course of discussion for the evening.
In spite of this successful event, I missed an emphasis on the real message of the film. The message reaches far beyond the indulgence in superb food and drink. The message is indeed nourishing, but is aimed at the human soul. The story of Babette’s Feast reveals a powerful message of mercy and grace. Blixen purposefully chooses to use exquisite food as a catalyst to explain the meaning of grace and why grace is so essential. Her metaphor is made explicit in General Loewenhielm’s (Jarl Kulle) speech which he gives to the eleven other guests seated at Babette’s feast. As the aged guests listen to the general, most of them don’t have a clue to the meaning of his words: “We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite … 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.” Blixen parallels her message of grace to that of Babette’s feast: a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver.
In his book, What’s so Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey describes the story of Babette’s Feast so perfectly. He writes, “Twelve years before, Babette had landed among the graceless ones. Followers of Luther, they heard sermons on grace nearly every Sunday and the rest of the week tried to earn God’s favor with their pieties and renunciations. Grace came to them in the form of a feast, Babette’s feast, a meal of life-time lavished on those who had in no way earned it, who barely possessed the faculties to receive it. Grace came to Norre Vosburg as it always comes: free of charge, no strings attached, on the house.”
The longer I critique foreign films, especially from the Scandinavian countries, the more impressed I am with the creativity directors use to communicate a moral message. As It Is in Heaven, Adam’s Apple and Dalecartians, are examples of recent films that powerfully transport a moral message in a movie. Their approach to filming is different. For example: they are not afraid to use women of all ages that are not glamorous on the big screen. Nevertheless they are feminine with a natural beauty. No, these women are not perfect looking but then again how many people in this world really are? These filmmakers, like Axel in Babette’s Feast, allow normal looking people to be the heroes. How cool is that? The filmmakers are not resistant to putting real life on the big screen and let that real life unfold within the narrative. I have grown to appreciate foreign films and their variety. They have served to expand my perspective on what goes into the composition of a good film. I enjoy being stretched: mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
*You may recall the memoirs of Karen Blixen’s life in East Africa as a manager of a coffee plantation from 1914 to 1931, as depicted in the film Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. She often wrote under the alias Isak Dinesen.