Babette’s Feast

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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..

http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/BabetteWW.htm

http://home.snu.edu/~ghackler/babette/bancroft.htm

http://www.cgjungpage.org/learn/articles/film-reviews/710-the-discovery-of-meaning-in-qbabettes-feastq

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Lemon Tree

“We are born with the capacity for empathy. An ability to recognize emotions transcends race, culture, nationality, class, gender, and age” says Mary Gordon.

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‘Empathy’ was the foremost thought that struck me when I saw this beautiful Israeli movie.Lemon Tree is a 2008 movie directed by Eran Riklis.The movie is set in West Bank,a part of the Israeli occupied territory -as classified by the UN.A land-locked territory near the Mediterranean coast of Western Asia, it has perpetually witnessed upheavals and finally was occupied by Israel following a six day war in 1967.Ensuing the military occupation, Israeli settlements in West Bank comprised a sizable population in an area predominantly dominated by Palestinian Arabs.

It is in this combustible landscape that two women’s lives intertwine – a Palestinian Arab widow and a Jewish Israeli woman married to the Israeli defense minister. Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass) is a middle-aged Palestinian Arab widow who lives alone with limited financial support from her three children. Her life revolves around nurturing her small lemon tree orchard from which she manages to derive a meager income.Her simple life is unsettled when an Israeli defense minister moves in as her neighbor.Barbed wires, tall check posts and round-the- clock security men invade her life and peace. But she finds her life careening, when the orders come in to uproot her beloved lemon trees,as a security measure to deter any armed attack on the defense minister’s house. Salma, a woman brought up in a strict patriarchal society, refuses to be cowed down and decides to take on the Israeli government to save her lemon trees.The story is about her determined struggle to get justice.
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When she hires a young lawyer – Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman) to fight for her, long forgotten emotions resurface. The story is also about loneliness and desires.

Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael), the Israeli defense minister’s wife is witness to Salma’s struggles to save her trees. A compassionate woman, Mira is moved by her plight and empathizes with her.And in the process,she can no longer ignore her husband’s glaring hypocrisies and shortcomings. She doggedly sticks to the role of a dutiful wife but she can no longer cast aside the growing loneliness within her. Mira and Salma – two women who can’t even communicate with each other. There are language,nationality and history barriers, but they reach out to each other. In a human bond, which is devoid of all requirements of such frivolities.Two women, who struggle in their own way to break the molds society has set for them.Both choosing to revolt in their own way. There are no winners or losers. There is only a sense of completion.
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It is a simple movie – brilliantly directed, poignant and depicts a plethora of subtle hues of the life, times and people involved.Hiam Abbass has acted exceptionally well and in several instances her face emotes far better than any verbal dialogues possibly could.Being a widow in a society, where social mores are rigidly imposed is also depicted through some well chosen shots.
Eran Riklis deals with the movie in a largely apolitical fashion focusing on people and relationships rather than on the conflict. The film did come in from criticism as it was said to be pro-Palestine and portrayed the Israelis, who wield more military power, as abusive and arrogant. Nevertheless, it went on to win several awards in Berlin Film Festival and Asia Pacific Screen Awards.