Babbette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel, 1987, Denmark–The Criterion Collection Reviewed by John Christman, SSS
In this, our first film review for Emmanuel’s new “Eucharist & Culture” section, what could be more fitting than the quintessential “theology and food” film, Babette’s Feast. Gabriel Axel’s 1988 Academy Award winning film not only abounds with eucharistic undertones, but it is impossible to watch on an empty stomach. Add to this a lusciously restored and newly converted Blu- Ray edition stuffed with delectable extras and insightful documentaries, and you may just have the meal of the century.
At first glance, the film may appear deceptively simple and somewhat familiar. A stranger arrives upon the desolate and windswept shores of a distant country. The people of the town take her in. They are a cold, somewhat austere community whose religion defines them, but doesn’t quite enliven them. Through her lovingly crafted cuisine, she slowly nurtures the fractured community back to life.
And yet, as one looks more closely, deeper meanings emerge in the film. For those gathered around the table nursing long held hurts and injuries, Babette’s gracious and abundant feast brings reconciliation and rosy-cheeked satisfaction. A community is forever altered by the meal they shared.
Liturgists and theologians have been basking in the afterglow of Babette’s wondrous meal since it first flickered across movie screens. In fact, the lessons of Babette’s Feast for a eucharistically minded people are many. It brilliantly illustrates the difference between an empty ritual and the transformative possibilities of truly sharing a meal. It also shows the redemptive and reconciling possibilities of gathering to break bread. Even Babette’s sacrifice in bringing the feast to the table evokes theological notions. The film does all of this and so much more with its subtle humor and mouthwatering dishes. It is an absolute delight.