When Gabriel Axel chose to adapt Isak Dinesen’s story Babettes Gaestebud to the screen, he moved the hamlet where it was located from Norway to western Jutland. The Norwegian coastal towns he saw were too colorful and idyllic, and he thought the bleak fishing village he selected better conveyed the sense of physical and spiritual isolation essential to the story.
The town is the home of a small pietistic sect, its founding pastor assisted by two lovely daughters named Martine and Philippa. While the sisters have many suitors, their father turns them away. Two men in particular would be taken with them, one a French opera singer drawn to Philippa, the other a Swedish cavalry officer visiting his aunt nearby. Each fails to win over the woman they have fallen for, and yet they would remain forever touched by them.
Flash forward thirty-five years, and a French woman arrives at the village with a note, introducing her as Babette Hersant, a friend of the baritone who has had to flee the bloodshed of the Paris Commune. She offers her services as a housekeeper, and for the next fourteen years assists the sisters in caring for the aged members of their dwindling flock. Her only remaining connection to home is an annual lottery ticket.
One day, she receives word that she has hit the jackpot of ten thousand francs. Grateful to the sisters, she offers to cook a full-course French dinner for the congregation, on the founding pastor's hundredth birthday. They had thought originally of a simple meal, but happily accept her offer. Babette commissions a relative to obtain the ingredients – along with fine china, silverware and lines appropriate for such a feast – and their arrival by boat shocks the austere congregants. Not wishing to offend, they covenant to behave as though they were eating the plainest of foods, rather than succumb to the temptations of such exotic and sensual fare.
Joining the congregants for the memorial dinner is the lady of the manor nearby, and her nephew – the cavalry officer from years past, now a decorated general. While still sympathetic to the pietism of his hosts, he is still a man of the world who appreciates the feast set before him, gushing with compliments and reminiscences of each dish and glass of wine, unaware of the pledge made by the others. Yet even the stoic villagers are unable to resist the charms of Babette's culinary gifts, and the bitter division that had built up over the years melt away, as the pleasures of the table cultivate the joys of conviviality. They end the evening joining hands under the stars and singing a hymn, all smiles. The general, having never lost affection for Martine, spends a final moment with her.
And Babette? The former chef de cuisine of the famous Café Anglais of Paris has spent her entire lottery winnings on the feast, without regret or concern. As her friend the opera star had told her: "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of an artist: Give me the chance to do my very best."
Babette's Feast is not just a story about one woman’s effect on the small village where she finds refuge. It is about the spiritual gifts of pleasure, creativity and abundance. Too often religious movements have told us to distrust our senses and deny our desires. But how else do we appreciate the world about us, and feel bonds of affection for one another? As George Santayana said: "Love would never take so high a flight unless it sprung from something profound and elementary."
I'm sure many Unitarian Universalists will be reading this and thinking: "Well, duh!" Yet I've also seen people who are as imprisoned by worry as any puritanical fundamentalist. Just as the villagers in this film worried about the temptations of sensuality, and religious conservatives frequently worry about eternal damnation, many religious liberals worry about achieving our vision of a better world.
Stepping back and allowing ourselves enjoyment is not merely a means of "taking a break" from our efforts at social justice and self-improvement. They are also a reminder of why we do such things – a glimpse, if you will, of the vision we hope to fulfill – and that our means are inextricably tied to the ends we desire. We need not sacrifice savoring our world in order to save it, and indeed we're better able to do so.