In a recent interview Pope Francis again brought up his favorite movie, the 1987 film Babette’s Feast. He mentioned the Danish film while speaking with Avvenire, bringing it up in response to questions about those who criticized his ecumenical endeavors. Pope Francis compared the rigid behavior of those opposed to his ecumenical outreach to the rigid townspeople portrayed in Babette’s Feast.
This is the not the first time Pope Francis has referenced his favorite film. He even referenced it in Amoris laetitia, making Babette’s Feast probably the first film ever to be mentioned in a papal document.
So why does Pope Francis love this movie so much and continue to recommend it? What are the spiritual lessons we can learn from this movie?
First of all, here is a brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen the film. The movie starts out in a small Protestant village that has been led for many years by a very rigid pastor. The beliefs of the congregation are extremely “Puritan,” making the village into a drab, grey place where there is hardly any joy. The townspeople are so worried about following the many rules that they are afraid to indulge in any earthly pleasures.
After the pastor has died, his daughters are forced into leading the dwindling congregation. They had hoped to marry, but their father was staunchly against marriage and forbade any suitors from approaching his daughters.
Then one day a French woman, Babette, comes to the city, and upends everything. While working as a housekeeper in the village, Babette discovers that she won a lottery back in Paris and instead of taking the money and returning home, she spends it all on a true “French feast.”
Many of the townspeople are scandalized by the many colorful ingredients and are set on refusing to enjoy what she cooks. They believe the feast is a “satanic Sabbath” and firmly believe the food should not be enjoyed and could expose them to terrible sins.
However, after sitting down and beginning to eat the many courses, they quickly discover it is harder to resist than they thought. They eventually can’t contain themselves and openly enjoy the feast and by the end of it, are eternally grateful to Babette for opening their eyes to the simple joys in life.
Pope Francis sees the beauty of the film in a few different ways. First of all he sees the feast as an example of true joy. He writes in Amoris laetitia:
“The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: ‘Ah, how you will delight the angels!’ It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centred, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit” (AL, 129).
Pope Francis sees in the selfless giving of Babette an example that we should all follow. Babette spent her whole lottery winnings to make this feast and spent weeks planning the meal and securing the necessary ingredients. This is the joy that Pope Francis wants us to experience, a joy that does not focus on selfish needs but on the joy of others.
Secondly, Pope Francis sees the film as a call to open ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we are tempted to imitate the Pharisees of old and put up a fence around our beliefs and focus on the man-made rules we make to protect ourselves. Rules are certainly necessary, but when we become obsessed with them, making up new ones that have no correlation to the heart of the Gospel, we blind ourselves to what God may want to do in our lives.
This is not a critique of the Ten Commandments or dogmatic truths that can never change, but of rules that we make (like never talking to Protestants) to protect ourselves from committing sin. Pope Francis challenges us to rethink about how God may want us to reach out in mercy towards those we don’t agree with and not be afraid of engaging with them in dialogue.
It is a film that echoes Pope Francis’ desires for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The movie highlights the need for mercy not at the exclusion of truth, but united to truth. The general’s toast at the end of the meal perfectly summarizes why Pope Francis love the movie so much:
“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.
Everything we have chosen…
has been granted to us.
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.”
In the end, Babette’s Feast is Pope Francis’ favorite film because it challenges us to look outside of ourselves and to see the beauty of God’s joy and mercy. It is a movie about selfless service to others that may not always be in accord with our man-made “rules” and may upend our view of God’s mercy.
As Philippa says to Babette at the end of the film, “But this is not the end, Babette. In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be. Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”