Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #5 - Babette's Feast (Axel, 1987)

5.  Babette's Feast - Gabriel Axel, 1987

                Babette’s Feast is probably the most personal film on my Top Ten.  Yes, it is a beautifully made film with poignant and powerful themes, phenomenal performances, and gorgeous cinematography, but it is relatively minor in the film lover’s canon compared to the other pieces that top my list.  However, I can’t help but fall in love with it more each time I watch it.  Centering on a small, strictly religious community in 19th century Denmark, the film follows two sisters, daughters of a great pastor/strict religious reformer who work hard to provide for the poor and needy in their small community following the passing of their father.  In this town, pleasure in anything but musical worship and simplicity is sinful.  One day, their lives radically change when a French woman (Babette, played masterfully by Stéphane Audran) seeks refuge in their home.  As the years go by, Babette begins to change the ways things are done in very small ways, feeding the people with better food and exuding a warmth and joy in her service.  One year, she wins the lottery (her only tie to her Paris home after all these years) and asks to make a meal in honor of the birthday of the dead pastor out of her winnings.  It is through this meal that she breaks the walls of the frequently joyless people of the community, sharing with them that they can worship God because of and through the abundant and wonderful gifts He gives.
                As a budding amateur cook myself, it is my own personal greatest joy to give others the gift of good food, laughter, and warmth around a table.  This film opened my eyes and solidified just how good God is in giving us these beautiful gifts.  In addition, the film showcases the generosity of these seemingly simple acts, as Babette gives of herself in every single way – giving everything she has.  Each aspect of the film is wonderful, as Axel weaves together the tales of the daughters’ fleeting loves that they put aside so many years ago in favor of service to their father and God.  It all together forms a rich tapestry that showcases the many gifts of God - warmth, fellowship, art, and love all included.  It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1987, screened at Cannes, and is simply a fantastic film that warms my heart.

David’s Response:
The lovely and generous Babette.
                Films with simple stories are usually neglected in discussions of “great” films, but in Babette’s Feast, we see why this is truly unfair.  It is not an audacious film, but it is certainly an ambitious and, yes, great one.  Few films can so succinctly and powerfully communicate their convictions without for a second feeling confrontational.  It is fitting that we saw the film as a result of my grandmother’s recommendation – it is not a film that sticks out or calls attention to itself, but it is a film that sticks with you.  It is the kind of film a good friend shows you because they love it deeply, very different from the kind of polarizing films that make up much of cinephelia’s “best of” lists.  It makes me sad that many of my viewing choices are taken from such lists, because this film reminds me there is also a rich and meaningful cinema of simplicity to be found elsewhere.
                Unlike more complex films, this neglected cinema of simplicity allows us to delve deep into its themes and meditate on them without distraction.  With this film, this is especially appreciated, for as your words capture well, the film hits on some of the most meaningful themes and concepts in Christian thought, and do so in a way that is both humble and inviting.  As with the greatest of Christian filmmakers (Dreyer, Bresson, Malick), Axel’s focus here is not on proselytizing, but instead in relaying honest affections for God.  Axel asks us to examine faith, rather than demanding conversion.  If only more Christian filmmakers would understand that speaking sincerely about God while gratefully enjoying a quality meal and a glass of well-aged wine is many times more effective in relaying the beauty of trusting God than preaching from a pulpit.  The film does regularly find its way onto lists of best food-related films, mainly because the pickings for such films are slim, but it is also much more than that – it is an ode to God’s grace in all its forms, whether that be in community, salvation, or a perfectly prepared turtle soup.

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