Adapted from a short story by Danish writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Babette’s Feast—a food-lover’s delight and gently revelatory film—took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1988. And since it’s release, the film has been regarded as a treasure of modern cinema, telling a 19th century tale of two pious adult sisters living in an isolated Scandinavian village. Directed by Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast, “invites viewers to swoon over the sensual and spiritual experience of the climactic meal as if they were eating it themselves. By the end of the film, you will be convinced that food can be raised to the level of art—and that through art comes divinity.”
The quality of the film is, in the end, a spiritual one (which is why mention of Dreyer is merited). Since its release, critics have pointed out that the story is open to religious interpretation, which is fair, and fine, as long as one understands what is meant by this. Certainly, story and film are studded with religious references—to the Last Supper, to sacramental grace, to the importance of charity, and so on—but given that the milieu being depicted is religious, this should contain nothing to surprise us. Plainly, as viewers, we need to acknowledge a certain irony and genial good humor being directed against the narrowness of the village sectarians, while also taking the trouble to observe that the critique provided (such as it is) is congruent with broadly Christian sentiment. As in Ordet, there is puritanical Christianity and a more enlightened Christianity “of the body.” The feast given by Babette to the pious townspeople opens their minds to the notion that the pleasures of the senses aren’t necessarily sinful, but the satire involved here is very gentle, and it would be false to interpret the great sequence we are talking about as some simple endorsement of epicureanism. Actually, you could argue that the film itself resists interpretation because, as with the story, everyone already understands its essence. We take from it the sentiments and epigrams that appeal to us: “A great artist is never poor” or “That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is also granted us.” Or the poignant last line of the general’s speech: “For mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!” These are delicate and beautiful sententiae, and may be most of what we remember when, having seen the film, we come to ask ourselves where its wisdom lies.