“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and short-sightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But, no! Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected — has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together. And righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another”- (Adaptation from Psalm 85:10) and thus spake Lorens Lowenhielm in Babette’s Feast.
– ooo -
Does self-denial really make us more virtuous ? Self-denial as a means to salvation has been pursued in various faiths and at various times. Self-denial is not the same as loss of desire for ‘denial’ inherently means that there was desire.Therefore self-denial takes infinitely more determination than abstaining because of a desire free existence.While I dwelled on this thought as I watched the 1987 drama film, Babette’s feast directed by Gabriel Axel,it left me much more to think about later.
In 19th century Denmark, is a tiny hamlet situated in an isolated stretch off the coast of Jutland.In this barren landscape, two beautiful sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Phillipa (Bodil Kjer), follow a rigidly devout path.
They had opportunities to deviate from their chosen path, but they doggedly stick on.Initially I was tempted to attribute it to the high handed approach of their father, a minister in the church, but later was forced to renege when I saw their obvious devotion and joy in their faith.Many years pass, the father is now deceased and the two sisters still continue to follow their path with the same joy and devotion. And then on one stormy night, a young & desperate French woman knocks on their door and she brings with her a letter which rekindle some forgotten memories. They take her in as a cook and so it was that Babette(Stephane Audran) came to live with them and loyally served them for 14 years.
On the 100th death anniversary of their father, Babette requests them to let her cook an authentic French dinner. But when they observe the dinner preparations which includes wine,tortoise soup and quails, it sends the puritan sisters into a flurry. And the would-be dinner guests undertake a vow that not a word about the dinner would pass their lips.
And the meal would have received no verbal recognition had it not been for the sudden appearance of a former suitor of one of the sisters, Lorens Lowenheilm,now a general in the army.
He was the only person present who could genuinely appreciate the meal unhindered by austerity.He found that the superlative meal could easily parallel one of the finest dining experiences he had long ago in an exclusive French restaurant.The power of the delicious dinner is such that it breaks down the distrust and the rivalries between the guests and after partaking the wonderful spread, they are uplifted to a different level of equanimity.
It was then that Loren Lowenhielm says – ‘Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.‘
The film has been shot at some very realistic locations which bring alive the bleakness of the countryside.Every actor plays their part to perfection which is not surprisingly considering that they were specially selected from the same nationalities as the part they were playing.The film won a lot of awards including the 1987 Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
The movie has some interesting thoughts at play.Does moral uprightness result in small-minded pettiness ? Does one’s humanness take a backseat when confronted with religious intolerance? Did it make the guests hypocritical who in spite of savoring every morsel, felt ashamed to state the obvious ? Was it the bliss of good food alone that brought forth the halo of congeniality ? The film also brings to the fore, the unfailing faith of the two sisters.Before leaving for dinner, Lorens Lowenhielm also ponders about his life’s choices – whether he has won or lost. But after the dinner,he realizes that life was not only unpredictable,it was also beyond reason.Winning or losing was too narrow a boundary to confine God’s wishes.The film also has lent itself to very deep religious interpretation owing to its use of Christian symbolism.
Babette is a great artist and as she herself declares ‘An artist is never poor’. Paradoxically, the meal was never meant for the sake of the guests.It was,in fact, for herself that she cooks.It was just as she had intended it to be – Not only an artist’s statement but also her personal spiritual en-devour.
The movie kind of grows on you and it will linger long after you have watched it. Watch it if you don’t mind watching slower paced movies and for the interesting interpretations that follow.
Here are some interesting links which talk at length about the religious interpretations..