Home Video Picks & Passes 12.14.14

Babette’s Feast (1987) — PICK
The Leopard (1963) — PICK
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) — PICK


Rub your eyes, Catholic fans of classic movies — you won’t often see a home-video column with a lineup like this.

Two celebrated art films honored on the Vatican film list have new editions, courtesy of Criterion. First, there’s an affordable new DVD of Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel’s gently humorous parable about the consternation in a pious, aging rural community when a refugee, a great Parisian chef (Stéphane Audran), plans to thank her hosts with a lavish gourmet feast.

Set in 19th-century Denmark, the story follows two elderly sisters, daughters of the community’s late pastor, who spend their lives in touching service to their father’s aging flock. Appropriately ranked by the Vatican film list in the category “Religion,” the movie implicitly contrasts brittle Protestant rigor with the incarnational spirit and grace characteristic of Catholicism.

Then there’s a new Blu-ray edition of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, an epic elegy of the decline of the aristocracy amid the 19th-century Italian unification during Garibaldi’s Sicilian campaign.

It was these events that left Pope Pius XI a “prisoner in the Vatican,” a status maintained by his successors until the Vatican city state was created by the Lateran Treaty in 1929. As seen in The Leopard, the Church of this earlier era is also compromised by its arrangements with the powerful, though in subtler ways.

Burt Lancaster stars as an aging Sicilian prince with no illusions about the failings of his own class or that of the egalitarian world to come. Honored in the “Art” category on the Vatican list, it’s one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary with a new Blu-ray from Sony, Catholic filmmaker Frank Capra’s beloved classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stars Jimmy Stewart as a typically wide-eyed Capra hero facing a typically Capra-esque gauntlet of corruption and greed.

Capra had covered this ground before, but this film made Stewart a star; and seven years later, they would collaborate on the movie both considered their favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life. Like that film, Mr. Smith manages to be both clear-eyed about original sin and the rottenness of the world, yet also utopian about the impact a single heroic person can make.

Yet where Wonderful Life rises to moral seriousness through its hero’s self-sacrificial choices, Mr. Smith is pure Hollywood hokum, hugely enjoyable if never credible in its cornball idealism.

Unlike The Leopard, this is Mr. Smith’s Blu-ray debut, with a pristine 4K digital restoration and loads of extras, among them several featurettes with Frank Capra Jr., including a commentary on the film, and a feature-length documentary on Capra narrated by Ron Howard.


CAVEAT SPECTATOR: Babette’s Feast: Nothing problematic. The Leopard: Thematic elements, including unchastity; wartime violence. Mature viewing. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: An off-screen suicide attempt; stylized violence; some innuendo and rude language. Teens and up.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy