Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
In 2010, three years before he was elected to the papacy, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio revealed in an interview that the 1987 film Babette's Feast was his favorite movie of all time.
Last week Philip Kosloski, writing at Aleteia, reported that Pope Francis had brought the film up once again. “In a recent interview,” writes Kosloski,
“...Pope Francis again brought up his favorite movie, the 1987 film Babette’s Feast. He mentioned the Danish film while speaking with Avvenire, bringing it up in response to questions about those who criticized his ecumenical endeavors. Pope Francis compared the rigid behavior of those opposed to his ecumenical outreach to the rigid townspeople portrayed in Babette’s Feast.
This is the not the first time Pope Francis has referenced his favorite film. He even referenced it in Amoris laetitia, making Babette’s Feast probably the first film ever to be mentioned in a papal document.”
Indeed, Kosloski is correct. In Amoris laetitia, the pope writes:
The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. 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. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centered, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit.
Pope Francis holds Babette's Feast before us as symbolic of rigidity. And one of Babette's dinner guests, Lorenz Lowenhielm, speaks of Pope Francis' favorite theme of “mercy” as he reflects on the effect of the generous meal on his small community of believers:
"Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."
Directed by Gabriel Axel, the Oscar-winning film tells the story of two Protestant sisters, Martine (named after Martin Luther) and Philippa (named for Philip Melanchthon), who take in a young Parisian refugee, Babette Hersant, to work as housekeeper and cook in their Denmark home. The sisters are aging spinsters, and they—like others in their small town on the desolate coast of Jutland—belong to a rigid puritanical sect which emphasizes stern simplicity. The French chef is grateful for their hospitality, and when Babette learns that she has won a lottery back in her native Paris, she doesn't use her winnings to return home. Instead, she spends her windfall on a celebratory banquet, a sumptuous eight-course meal, to surprise the dwindling Danish community.
The townspeople, accustomed to plain clothing and plain food, are at first scandalized by the many colorful ingredients in Babette's feast, and resolve that they will not enjoy the “satanic Sabbath” which she sets before them. But as they taste first one culinary delight, then another, they are softened. Little by little, the room is filled with conversation and laughter as the townspeople are transformed by the tasty meal.
There's much to be drawn from such a complex film. Certainly, it fits well with Pope Francis' theme of mercy. But there are other, diverse reviews which examine the film from varying perspectives:
- The Washington Post called Babette’s Feast “edible art,” a tour de force for the taste buds.
- Marjorie Baumgarten, writing in the Austin Chronicle, called it the “food in film” equivalent of Valhalla.
- Christopher Null at filmcritic.com sees in Babette’s Feast a seminal work about repressed emotions and self-doubt.
A foodie film? A gloomy story of repression?
Well, yes but….for a Christian, the parallel to the Eucharist, to a heavenly Feast, is striking. In her sacrifice, her pouring out of her resources in an expansive love, Babette is a riveting Christ-figure. The satiating meal, an earthly parallel to the heavenly banquet, is eucharistic. And the grace it imparts, the rich outpouring of emotion among the gloomy Danish congregants, mirrors the spiritual life-giving nourishment of the Eucharist.
But curiously, the story's author Isak Dinesen herself seems to have been limited by her personal secularism, incapable of applying the story’s imagery within the context of faith. Raised in a Unitarian household, Dinesen drew upon the Old and New Testaments and other spiritual works for her themes; but she remained an agnostic, never raising her eyes toward the heavens to gaze upon the transcendent God. Her personal life was marred by a failed marriage and unsatisfying relationships. She was addicted to painkillers, and she died in 1962 of malnutrition—starving both physically and spiritually.
So my question: Can an agnostic be divinely inspired?
My answer is a resounding “Yes.” It seems that Dinesen reached beyond herself, beyond her wildest imaginings, to reveal a Truth which she, lacking true faith, could not understand.
* * * *
Now about Martine and Philippe, and their famed namesakes Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon:
Melanchthon, the younger and lesser known friend of Martin Luther, labored with him to reform the church. However, there is an interesting difference between the two: Whereas Luther stood firmly on his self-constructed platform of “justification by faith,” Melanchthon was more moderate. He agreed that one must have faith; but also, he taught, one must demonstrate one’s faith by works.
The two friends are buried side by side at the Castle Church in Wittenberg. I’ve read that Martin Luther has a statue of Mary at his grave.