Is the greatest virtue to be found in austere reflection or in celebration of the world's delights? Babette's Feast suggests that God is glimpsed in contradictions and contrast, where artistry meets humility, where patience and passion meet. By bringing bountifulness together with sacrifice it reveals their shared essence, and it does so with surpassing beauty.

The windswept coast of Jutland, some two hundred years ago, is a place where beauty is bounded by suffering. Two sisters, widely admired in their youth and courted by wealthy suitors, have shunned Earthly delights to keep alive their dead father's small religious sect, whose own rejection of physical pleasures has insured its impending demise. Now they are old, their putward beauty faded, but inside there is something else. It reveals itself in their kindness to a humble French woman, Babette, a refugee from the violence that came after la Révolution, whom they have taken in as their cook. Unbeknownst to them, this woman has a secret. When she encounters good fortune, just before the 100th anniversary of their father's death, it determines to reveal itself.

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Babette's Feast is the celebratory meal she persuades the sisters to let her cook for the whole village. It is also a spiritual wealth which, the film hints, she has possessed all along and can never lose. In both senses, it hints at the reward the sisters will receive for their devotion, their patience, their willingness to withdraw from the world in the service of others.

Rarely has a feast on film looked so inviting. The contrast between the spare, bleak landscapes and the lush delights of the kitchen, once Babette sets to work, throws everything into sharp relief. Watching, you will believe that you can touch, smell, almost taste her wonderful creations. Do not go to this film hungry or in the vicinity of expensive restaurants. It will leave you longing for a glory you can never hope to attain in life - which, perhaps, is an effective metaphor for the pursuit of spiritual reward.

If all this sounds like heavy going, Babette's rich tale is leavened by dry wit. So enthralled are villagers by her works that they distrust their own emotions. Of course they must eat - it would be ill-mannered not to - but they are wary of being seduced by pleasure. They are wary of strange French foods, of Catholic cooks, of the lightness of spirit that the absurdity of their behaviour cannot help but bring out in the audience. They evidence the contradiction at the heart of much religious practice, setting up desperate barricades against the very wisdom they seek. Don't watch this film whilst eating; you may choke.

Now receiving a welcome re-release after years in unwarranted obscurity, this award-winning treat deserves an audience ready to open itself to its deceptively simple, inwardly rich narrative possibilities. Go on. Indulge yourself.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2012
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In an isolated village in Denmark, dominated by puritanism, two spinsters nostalgically recall their distant youth and the rigid upbringing that forced them to pass up their chance at Earthly happiness.
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SSFF 2012

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