Gabriel Axel’s 1987 masterwork, Babette’s Feast, invites us to consider the counterpoint of asceticism and celebration among followers of Jesus. This subtitled Danish film tells the story of three women: two are devoted and reverent sisters. The other a foreigner, an outsider--and God’s gracious provision for those unable to hear the invitation, “Come, enter into the Master’s joy.”
The sisters, Filippa and Martine, have given their lives in service to their father, a stern sectarian minister. The women have given up on love, music, and beauty in order to express their faithfulness to a man who defined the Christian faith as a life of continual sacrifice. After their father dies they carry on the traditions of simplicity and tranquility while helping the poor. In their charity they take on a refugee from the 19th century conflicts raging in Europe. Babette, the refugee, offers to cook and clean, and in her gratitude learns life on the sister’s terms: straight, narrow, and devout.
Years later the hand of God intervenes when Babette wins a lottery of an astronomical sum. Instead of leaving the sisters, she offers to help them celebrate the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth by preparing a meal--under the condition that she can set the menu and make all the arrangements. The result is a feast of unparalleled excellence, unearthly delight, and guests who find themselves unsure how to receive such bounty. Babette is revealed to be more than a refugee: she is a chef of world renown.
The second half of the film is dedicated to the meal, a prophetic feast of the age to come. The guests are drawn into an understanding of their God previously unimagined. Old grievances are set aside, the warmth of their original devotion is restored, and each guest gains a glimpse of the marriage supper of the Lamb.
This movie is remarkably even-handed toward both Christian traditions: it does not demean one to exalt the other. Every character is impacted by the lives of others, and in community they discover the glory of God as one might see the night sky for the first time. Even the experience of watching this film requires both sides of our souls: The Danish film is subtitled in English, requiring our study and attention, while the transcendent visuals on the screen draw us from one world to the next.
In my opinion every follower of Jesus should sup at Babette’s Feast.