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Garan Santicola, Contributing Writer, The Christophers
Beauty and Truth in “Babette’s Feast”

                There is a moment midway through the film “Babette’s Feast” when time hangs suspended as an aged and austere Christian sect in a tiny Danish village awaits a meal prepared by a legendary French chef. Babette Hersant is a refugee from war-torn Paris, known among Parisian elites for her ability to turn a dinner into a noble love affair that satisfies both bodily and spiritual appetites. When she wins a lottery shortly before the 100th birthday celebration of her adoptive community’s deceased founding minister, Babette seizes the opportunity to share her long-suppressed talents as a chef.

In the original short story, Isak Dinesen writes of the founder’s surviving daughters, Martine and Philippa, and their growing fear of “the French dinner coming upon them, a thing of incalculable nature and range.” They vow, along with other members of the community, to take no joy in food they are certain will be decadent and arouse sinful appetites.

This much-celebrated 1987 Danish film is a favorite of Pope Francis because it highlights how mercy and an appreciation for the joys of life are essential to knowing and acting upon faith. Ironically, it is the austerity of the community and their commitment to avoid gluttonous pleasure that best prepares them to find true joy in the feast. The satisfying nature of the meal elevates them beyond their usual petty quarrels to beautiful reminiscences about their founder and ultimately towards a spirit of forgiveness and a return to communal love.  

Among the dinner guests is a visiting general who once courted Martine and represents the privileged class Babette used to serve in Paris. Unaware of the community’s vow to speak not a word about the food, the general effuses about each dish, awakening his fellow diners’ awareness of how truly unique this meal is, and providing a refined pallet to evaluate and esteem Babette’s creation.

In his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis praises the joy Babette seeks in sharing her talents, writing, “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.” Babette’s gift to the community goes beyond sharing her creative genius. She makes a Christ-like sacrifice that demonstrates her respect for the inherent goodness of the people she serves and her desire to infuse their lives with a transcendent moment.

The general appreciates the contrast between the extravagance of the meal and the simplicity of the villagers who once struck fear into his heart and drove him away from Martine. Delivering a toast with confidence characteristic of the worldly status he has achieved, he serves as an unexpected conduit for an expression of the ideals of the community’s founder, reminding them that grace has no bounds. “Mercy and truth have met together,” the general says. “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”         

When the sisters ask Babette about the sacrifice she has made for them, she says, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.” Babette cannot foresee the profound result of her efforts. It is only because she strives for the ideals of beauty and truth in her art that grace is able to transform her creation into a foretaste of heaven.