By David Ray Skinner
A few weeks ago, I downloaded and screened the Danish film, “Babette’s Feast.” I was reminded of the film during a phone conversation with a friend (and fellow film buff) when he referred to it and asked me if I agreed about a point he was making. I drew a blank. Of course, I had heard of the film and had seen it when it was released back in 1987.
Or did I?
Back then, I prided myself on keeping up to date with all the latest and artistic foreign films. However, once I downloaded it and I began screening it, I realized that it had somehow escaped my viewing experience. I had really missed out, because I was immediately mesmerized by the simplicity and power of its message.
The film is set in 19th-century Denmark and features two elderly and pious Christian sisters, the daughters of a pastor who shepherds a dwindling and elderly, yet faithful congregation. One of the sisters is romanced by a famous French opera singer, and the other is courted by a Swedish cavalry officer. However, both sisters reject their respective suitor and remain with their father to aid in his church.
Thirty-five years later, Babette, a refugee from the counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris, appears at the aging sisters’ door with a letter of recommendation from the (now even more famous) French opera singer, offering to work for free, cleaning and cooking in return for a place to stay. The sisters’ father has passed away and money is scarce, but they hesitatingly agree. Babette serves them as a cook and housekeeper for 14 years, and meanwhile, the remaining church members become more argumentative among themselves with each passing year.
Then one day, Babette receives some exciting news. A friend in Paris has annually renewed a lottery ticket for her, and her number comes up, winning her 10,000 francs. She tells the sisters (and the members of their church) that she wants to prepare a meal for them in celebration of the 100th birthday of their late father (and pastor). She travels to Paris and returns with a wagon load of plentiful and exotic ingredients, and the day arrives to cook the meal. The church’s congregants arrive (determined to not enjoy what they consider to be a “sensual” meal), as does the Swedish cavalry officer who had once courted one of the sisters. He is now a highly-respected general who is married to a member of the Queen’s court.
Although all of the diners at the table are amazed at the extravagance and the deliciousness of the feast, the general, who is a world-traveler (and accustomed to dining in the best restaurants in the world), comments that it reminds him of a meal he once had at the world-famous Café Anglais in Paris. The meal unifies the diners at the table; old slights are forgiven, old loves are rekindled, and a spirit of redemption falls upon the table and transforms the dinner guests.
As the guests leave, the sisters sadly realize that with her new-found money, Babette will be probably be leaving them and returning to Paris. However, Babette tells them that all of her money is gone—spent on the ingredients of the feast, and she has no plans to leave. Then, she reveals that before her exile, she was the head chef at Café Anglais, where a dinner of 12 cost 10,000 francs.
As a Christian, the message is clear. Babette represents Jesus as a servant/savior—someone who left an exalted position to work as a lowly cook and housekeeper and ultimately to bring the small church congregation back together. What a different kind of film. No chainsaws, psycho murders, terrorist masterminds, alien armies or super-power, spider-bitten heroes.
In the early ‘70s, I studied “Aesthetics of the Film” at my little Baptist college. The course was the brainchild of one of the college’s young and recently-hired English professors, who loved the artistry of the film—I’m sure it wasn’t the college’s idea, and they most likely agreed to the course with no small amount of trepidation. However, it was one of the classes that made the biggest impression on me and totally changed the way I viewed movies. I was amazed to learn about the “story within the story,” the subliminal theme that many of movies contained, buried beneath the plot.
Starting with German director Josef von Sternberg’s, “The Blue Angel,” an early talkie released in 1930, our professor revealed the power of the subliminal message. The movie tells the story of a respected professor who is seduced and driven to madness by Lola, a flamboyant cabaret singer (played by Marlene Dietrich). At that point in history, German filmmakers were becoming more and more scrutinized by the rising Nazi party, who were very aware of the propaganda power of the movies. Sternberg’s message in “The Blue Angel” was that just as in the case of the professor, the proud and intellectual Germany was in danger of being seduced and destroyed by the charismatic Hitler.
Even more fascinating to me than Sternberg’s warning to the German was learning about the theme of faith and redemption embedded in movies—a message that was sometimes obvious and other times, more subliminal. At the time I was taking the class, two major movies had just been released—George Lucas’ coming-of-age film, “American Graffiti,” and the post-apocalyptic action film, “The Omega Man.”
“American Graffiti” is set in 1962, an age of American innocence, before the tragic Kennedy assassination and the escalation of Vietnam. It takes place on the last evening of summer vacation for a group of high school graduates and their friends. As the graduates ponder their future, the ever-present voice of Wolfman Jack—the “voice of God”—follows them through their radios from location to location and one of them, Curt, continues to see a beautiful blonde in a white Thunderbird who mouths the words, “I love you.” She is always appearing wherever Curt is, but she is always gone before Curt can reach her. He drives to the radio station, hoping that Wolfman can deliver a message to her via the airwaves. As he enters the station, “Crying in the Chapel” plays over the speakers and an “employee” at the station (who is actually Wolfman) promises to deliver the message. Curt never meets the beautiful blonde and decides to go off to college the following day. As the plane takes off, Curt sees the white Thunderbird on the highway below, following in the plane’s shadow. The message was that God is ever-present and He sends His Comforter to protect us and walk (and ride) beside us, especially in pivotal moments of our lives.
“The Omega Man” isn’t as subtle with its theme of redemption. Its setting is in the not-too-distant future, after a biological bomb has been set off, sickening and killing most of the world’s population. Most of the ones who did survive call themselves “The Family” and have been turned into nocturnal mutants, determined to destroy all remaining technology. However, one scientist, Col. Robert Neville, M.D. (played by Charlton Heston), has been working on an experimental vaccine, which he gives himself, rendering him immune to the bio-plague. Because he represents technology and “the old normalcy,” the Family is determined to kill Neville, and in fact, they finally succeed. However, in the final scene, after Neville has been mortally speared, he is found dying in a fountain by a handful of survivors who have not yet succumbed to the plague. Neville gives his blood—containing the antidote to the plague—to save their lives and ensure that the human race will continue. In his autobiography, Charlton Heston referred to the fountain scene in which his character dies as the film’s “crucifixion scene.”
After the class was over, I began to notice images of faith and redemption in a number of movies, from the “cross” scene in which Paul Newman’s anti-hero appears in “Cool Hand Luke” to the major good-vs.-evil theme of “Star Wars” and its thematic reliance on “The Force.” These movies are completely different than films like “God’s Not Dead,” “The Ten Commandments,” or “The Passion of the Christ,” that are obviously thematically Biblical-oriented. And they’re different from movies like the allegorical Czech short film, “Most,” which depicts a bridge operator who sacrifices his only son to save the lives of the passengers on a train, most of whom are partying and therefore oblivious to the son’s death. In fact, of all the characters in the film—living in a broken world—the man and his son are the only ones who have a truly loving relationship, which makes his sacrifice even more painful.
No, movies like “Cool Hand Luke” and “Star Wars” are not “Christian” movies, per se, so I have to ask myself, “Is the spiritual metaphor(s) intentional, or as a person of faith, am I reading that into these movies?” Was it coincidental that “Crying in the Chapel” was playing when Curt sought out the omnipotent Wolfman? Or that “May the Force be with you” was as common a phrase in “Star Wars” as “God bless you” is to us today?
Either way, that class forever tempered the way I watch movies (years later, I jokingly told my former professor that he ruined going to the movies for me). Maybe it’s like a Rorschach test in which everyone sees something different. However, I’d like to believe that the theme of faith and redemption is stamped on our artistic creations as a supernatural watermark and woven into the fabric of our art, whether it’s a song, a painting or a film. It acknowledges the Master Creator as the Giver of the talent and ability He gifted us to create these pieces of art, as we we try to emulate Him and give Him honor and praise through our humble creations.
David Ray Skinner is a writer, musician, illustrator, designer and the creative director of FaithLines. His recent book, “Rubine River” is available on Amazon/Kindle, Scribd, iBooks and a variety of other online book sites. His website is DavidRaySkinner.com.