For our first session in European films class, our revered venerable professor, Fr. Nicasio “Nick” Cruz, SJ, opened our semester with the Danish film entitled “Babette’s Feast”. It was his way of introducing us to the “more refined, more realistic and more authentic” European cinema. He said that he aims to improve our cinematic taste by introducing us to European films that would surely shame the mere shallow entertainment and glamor that Hollywood offers in its 3-D and “fast and furious” films.
The film opens with two pious Christian ladies, Martine and Philippa, proceeding through their usual corporal acts of mercy. The two spinsters have continued the ministry of their late father, a local pastor who founded his own sect in their far-flung town. The pastor and his sect espoused rigid discipline, temperament and control as well as homogeneity, serenity as well as order.
The movie then retells how the two sisters turned down offers by two dashing men to take their hands in marriage. First, Martine meets her suitor, Lorens, a young army man, who is eventually turned away by Martine’s father. He leaves convincing himself that he made the right choice since he believes Martine deserves someone better than him. Then, there was Philippa whose suitor was a famous baritone from Paris, Achille Papin. When she felt the baritone was already making advances, she asks her father, the pastor, to inform Papin to cease his music lessons with her, and henceforth, his hopes of getting her.
The movie then progresses to relay how Babette Hersant, a French lady, ends up in their home. With her son and husband killed during a civil disturbance in France, Babette decides to move to Denmark. She then explains to the spinsters that her good friend, Achille Papin, was the one who directed her to the home of Philippa and Martine. They take her in with delight.
In a span of fifteen years, Babette was able to uplift, and to some degree, improve the lives of the sisters. She assists them, cooks for them, et cetera.
However, one day, she receives a letter from France informing her she won the lottery with a prize of 10,000 francs! She is of course elated and prepares herself to return to France. However, she asks the spinsters for a request and that is to allow her to cook up a feast on the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. She proposes in whipping up a “real French dinner”. Always charitable, the two sisters grant her request, a singular favor she asks ever since she started serving them. She then asks permission to have a few days off since she needed to go to Paris to purchase the ingredients.
Upon Babette’s return, however, the two sisters are aghast at the site of “exotic” and “excessive” ingredients such as quails, a block of ice, a live turtle, bottles of different kinds of alcoholic beverages such as wine and champagne, and even a cow’s head! Martine then gathers the elders of the sect who are the dinner’s guests and warns them not to enjoy or comment on the food and drink they shall be partaking of. The others agree and share the common sentiment that such a luxurious dinner is shamefully sinful and against the precepts their beloved pastor gave them.
The day of the hundredth anniversary comes and another twist occurs: Lorens, who is now a general in the army, is coming to dinner as he accompanies his elderly aunt, one of the pastor’s most loyal followers. Martine is nervous but also seemingly elated. On the other hand, Babette is busy in the kitchen whipping up and preparing an exquisite and marvelous array of French dishes.
The dinner commences and the guests arrive at a perfectly appointed dining table, complete with china and other table ornaments. Slowly, the food and drink arrive.
The movie then shows how the food are masterfully prepared in the kitchen by Babette and how the elders, Martine, Philippa and the general partake of the meal. Only the general is able to comment widely on the food, obviously happy and utterly impressed by the gastronomical feast they were sharing. The menu is as follows: “Potage à la Tortue” (turtle soup); “Blini Demidoff au Caviar” (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); “Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine” (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); “La Salad” featuring Belgian endive and walnuts in a vinaigrette; and “Les Fromages” featuring Blue Cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple. The grand finale dessert is “Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée” (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines, including Clos de Vougeot, along with various champagnes and spirits, complete the menu (from the Wikipedia entry about “Babette’s Feast”.The movie then shows how the elders try their very best to repress the feelings and sensations the food offer but slowly transform into more open, bubblier and relaxed persons. Their faces, which used to be as white as their hair, glow and sparkle. Now that they have tasted good food, so too did their souls find happiness.
The dinner ends with the guests happily leaving the house, singing and sharing good sentiments.
Philippa and Martine then approach Babette in the kitchen who is seemingly tired and exhausted. They thank her for the wonderful feast she prepared.
Babette then informs them that she will no longer be going to France and informs her that she is penniless. They ask how could that be since she won 10,000 francs!
But lo, she responds by saying that “Dinner for 12 at the Cafe Anglais is worth 10,000 francs. I used to be the chef of Cafe Anglais”.
The sisters are dumbfounded. With much sadness Philippa approaches Babette and reminds her that she will now be forever poor, to which Babette calmly answers: an artist is never poor.
The movie ends with that line and a candle’s light being blown.
With such an introductory movie into the semester, I will surely look forward to my European Films Class under the venerable Fr. Nick Cruz, SJ.