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The taste of salvation

· In the film ‘Babette’s Feast’ ·

To enter into the film Babette’s Feast, one needs to sit down, to take the time to look and to taste what we are about to see. Doesn’t the title speak precisely of a “feast”, and hence of a meal, indeed of nuptials? And yet the feast takes place only in the second part of the film. As if everything that came before it was nothing but a prelude in order to familiarize viewers with the characters and to savour that meal. Taste is precisely the subject of the film: tasting life and the decisions of the characters, tasting goodness, tasting free giving, superabundance and love, tasting God’s salvation and lastly tasting grace and truth because they will end by embracing each other (cf. Ps 84:11). Babette’s feast will be the “place”, the “moment”, in which the physical appetite comes into harmony with the spiritual appetite; this feast will become a true love story.

The film’s first scene shows us the infinite sea with the colours of Scandinavia. This seascape will return periodically during the film, like a horizon we shouldn’t lose sight of. So we are in a village in Denmark, on the coast of Jutland in the 19th century. Two sisters live there, Martine and Filippa, the pastor’s daughters. Their father is also the founder of a small Protestant sect. For him his two daughters are “his right arm and his left arm”. Their three lives unfold according to the principles of their lives: serving, welcoming, praying and loving. In spite of proposals of marriage and of a career, both sisters have chosen to stay in their village beside their father, even after his death. Their choice of life is simple: to serve the poor, to feed them, to gather together the members of their father’s sect and to give out the word, “the Word”. They are beautiful with that beauty which reveals the goodness of their hearts: the door of their home will always be open to those who arrive from near or far.

Another three characters will confront this evangelical life. First of all the cavalry officer, Lorens, who stays for three months not far from the village of the two sisters. He falls in love with Martine, in front of a pitcher of milk. He takes part in the pastor’s meetings with the sect, opposite what seems to him unattainable, the grace personified by Martine, he chooses a brilliant career and returns to his life as an officer. Then Achille Papin arrives, an opera singer who falls in love with the voice (or way) of Filippa. He teaches her to sing, because, in his opinion she is a star. Filippa herself asks her father to dismiss this over-intrusive man. And lastly, during a storm which resembles a deluge, Babette arrives. The pastor is dead by now and it is the two sisters who welcome her into their service, unpaid because for Babette what matters is to stay and to live. If she is rejected she will die, they say.

And Babette will lead us on a path of salvation: her relationship with others is moving and everything she prepares is delicious. She makes her daily life a gift, given freely and understood. And, without anything foretelling such a gift, grace arrives: she wins a small sum in the lottery. She turns it into a gift overflowing with generosity: to celebrate the centenary of the pastor’s birth, she offers the two sisters a meal for the eleven remaining members of the sect, who, as time passes, have become “rancid”, bitter and sour.

During the feast we are to witness what might be the nuptial banquet that awaits us in eternity. Babette, who was once “the” prestigious chef of the Café Anglais in Paris, prepares with all her body and all her soul a banquet fit for kings and queens. At the last minute the cavalry officer, who has in the meantime become a general, joins the group as the twelfth guest. So that meal becomes the ark of salvation and that feast becomes the place of reconciliation: palates taste and tongues are loosened.

Lorens, the General, tries, tastes and samples and gives thanks for the grace that is offered to him because, he says, “one gives and does not dictate conditions, it is infinite, one receives with gratitude”. He who had seemed lost because of the superficiality of the career he chose rediscovers himself where we was awaited by the grace of love, that of Martine, to whom he declares eternal love.

For Babette too, who prepares, composes, creates and serves, it is the moment of encounter with herself and with her culinary genius. She offered this feast to make those who taste it happy, “so that a cry that wells up from the artist’s heart might resound throughout the world” (as Achille Papin said). Babette, as if she has been baptized by the deluge on the day she arrived, goes beyond, she crosses the boundaries of propriety, she gives and gives herself at this feast and shares everything: her money, her life, her heart, her dignity and her gratitude. Throughout the meal she remains in the kitchen, without expecting any thanks. This was not why she prepared it. And to end the offering of her service, she immerses her hands in water to wash her face.

As for the eleven members of the community, without knowing it, they are the happy and pardoned “victims” of this feast. For them that moment becomes smiles exchanged and brotherhood rediscovered, profound reconciliation and forgiveness offered. They will end the evening by dancing round the village well.

Babette’s Feast is a lesson on the taste of life and of God’s salvation because, according to the Prophet Isaiah, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it [salvation] together” (cf. Is 40:5 and Lk 3:6). All those we believed to be close to salvation marvel because they are proposed an even more beautiful and intense closeness, and those who found themselves distant, indeed even rejected, taste the unheard of and unknown quality of grace and truth. Indeed, the pastor repeated twice the sentence “The ways of the Lord cross the seas where the human eye fails to see the way”.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat! [...].
Hearken diligently to me, and eat
What is good
And delight yourselves in fatness” (Is 55:1-2).

Catherine Aubin

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