Originally posted at Civil Religion in 2010.
Note: The fact that I’m “giving away” the endings to “Big Night” and “Babette’s Feast” shouldn’t deter you from watching them both in their entirety. Trust me.
The setting is 1950s New Jersey and two Italian immigrant brothers struggle to keep their restaurant, the Paradise, alive. Older brother Primo is an artist, a chef of such uncompromising standards that he feels contempt for customers who do not properly appreciate his dishes. Younger brother Secondo is a practical man. He understands what a gift his brother’s cooking is, but also knows that without a major influx of customers they’ll never be able to stay in business. Secondo pleads for help from his chief rival, Pascal, who owns a wildly popular, if cliched, Italian restaurant. Secondo envies Pascal’s customers, but Primo can only scoff at his food. “The man should be in prison for the food he serves,” Primo says.
The film “Big Night” centers around one last-ditch effort by the brothers to save the Paradise. Pascal has offered to arrange for Luis Prima and his band to come by the restaurant for a meal. If Primo’s food wins over a celebrity like Prima it will generate business for the Paradise, Secondo reasons. And so Primo prepares the meal of a lifetime (including the piece de resistance, a timpani that has to be seen to be believed) and the brothers present it to a crowd of friends and acquaintances. Wine flows, but it is really the amazing food that intoxicates the guests. One woman weeps near the end of the meal, “My mother was such a terrible cook!”
Food movies are almost a genre unto themselves. Sometimes, as in movies like “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Chocolat”, the food is literally magical. In other films, as in “Big Night”, it has tremendous power even without supernatural properties. It makes sense that food would be a potent symbol in film. Food sustains us, after all. But food is more than survival. It also brings pleasure, and both the quantity and type of food consumed demonstrate social position and emotional well being (or lack thereof). In a film like “Reality Bites”, the convenience store junk food diet of the young adult characters corresponds to the mass-produced popular culture that they unthinkingly absorb.
It’s no stretch to say that food has spiritual connotations. In fact, we sometimes say that eating a really exquisite dish is a “religious experience”. The Bible uses food imagery from beginning to end. There, too, food sometimes represents sustenance – as in the prophet Isaiah’s invitation to all “who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Or consider Jesus’ instruction to his followers that they should pray for their “daily bread”. But the Bible is also full of feasts – both feasts which the Israelites and early Christians kept as religious communities, and the promise of feasts to come. Jesus’ compared the Kingdom of God to a wedding banquet, and indeed, Revelation points forward to the “marriage supper of the Lamb“.
The dinner guests in “Big Night” are recipients of an unforgettable feast because Primo and Secondo have poured all of their resources and artistry into the meal in the last, desperate hope that their restaurant will survive. In the film “Babette’s Feast”, on the other hand, the feast that anchors the film is a pure gift. Babette is a French refugee who for years has found shelter in Denmark as the cook and housekeeper for two aging sisters. The sisters, Martine and Philippa, are members of an austere, pietist Lutheran sect. Their father was the founding pastor of the church, but he is long dead, and the congregation is dwindling away, with constant bickering among the members. After 14 years of quietly serving the sisters the bland food that they request, Babette comes into a large sum of money – enough to start a new life. She asks Martine and Philippa for permission to serve them one genuine French meal in honor of the centenary of their father’s birth. What the sisters have never known is that Babette was once the most celebrated chef in Paris. The feast that follows is perhaps the most famous sequence in all food movies. Babette serves course after course to the sisters and their fellow congregants, along with one visitor, General Lowenheilm (who had loved Martine in their youth). As the food is consumed old quarrels and hurt feeling drop away and stern demeanors give way to smiles, singing and stories from happier times. Finally, overwhelmed by the experience, Gen. Lowenheilm stands to make a toast. He quotes scripture, declaring that “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together, Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another…We come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it in confidence and receive it in gratitude.” Leaving the meal, the members of the church drift outside embracing and singing a hymn together.
It is only after the meal that Philippa and Martine realize what Babette has done. She has spent her entire fortune on the meal they have just enjoyed and seems broken by the sacrifice. Philippa assures Babette that this is not the end for her artistry – that it will one day “delight the angels” in heaven.
The film “Babette’s Feast” was adapted from a story by Isak Dinesen. Dinesen intended to write about the power of art to uplift and restore, and certainly that idea is expressed in the artistry of Babette’s meal. The same power is evident in Primo’s meal in “Big Night”. The most significant difference between the two meals, though, is that Babette’s feast is such a deliberate act of grace. Primo and Secondo’s lavish dinner is a costly effort to keep the Paradise open. Babette has no other motive behind the feast she serves, except to show the sisters what they have been missing, to offer them something they could never do for themselves. Her gift to them costs her everything and is given to people who hardly know how to respond. Christians like myself react strongly to “Babette’s Feast” in part because we recognize this story. The costly grace we have been given is reflected in the eucharistic meal, the “love feast” that has the power to bring reconciliation. It is a remembrance of the mercies of God in the past and the looking forward to the great feast to come, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Both “Big Night” and “Babette’s Feast” recognize that there is no sharp separation between the physical and spiritual. Food is not simply a metaphor, it’s a means by which we encounter the sacred – a “means of grace”, as we say in my church tradition. This is why we do more than simply talk about the bread and wine at the Lord’s table – we actually eat and drink. Primo’s feast in “Big Night” may have been a less knowing and intentional offering of grace, but it serves as one, nevertheless. As Primo says, “To eat good food is to be close to God. I’m never sure what that means, but it’s true anyway.” Our encounters with art – whether in a fine meal or a fine movie – are gifts which can serve as channels of the sacred.
There is a small, perfect denouement at the end of “Big Night”. The previous evening has ended with a huge argument between the brothers. All hope for the Paradise and for their relationship seems lost. But a simple breakfast shared between Primo and Secondo, without a word being spoken, is the means of reconciliation. I was raised to “say grace” before eating a meal and have raised my children the same way. Giving thanks seems like the right action, but “saying grace” is a strange expression, isn’t it?. It almost sounds as if the words we say bring grace to the situation rather than simply acknowledging it. Both “Big Night” and “Babette’s Feast” express the truth that grace is already present – in the food itself, the thoughtful preparation, and the community around the table.