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Babette's Feast is a joyous story about a good meal healing social divisions

It's the perfect movie for this Thanksgiving weekend.

Babette prepares her feast
Babette prepares her feast
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for November 20 through 26 is Babette’s Feast (1987), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon and iTunes.

When it’s feasting season — say, a Thanksgiving feast and days of leftovers — that’s a sign it’s time to return to Babette’s Feast, the classic Danish film that won an Oscar in 1988. Gabriel Axel’s film is not just one of the most jubilant, open-hearted films I’ve seen, but it also has the best feast scene in cinematic history. I dearly love this movie.

Turns out it’s one of Pope Francis’s favorite movies as well — just last week, he brought it up again in an interview with the Italian paper Avvenire. According to the Catholic website Aleteia, “Pope Francis compared the rigid behavior of those opposed to his ecumenical outreach to the rigid townspeople portrayed in Babette’s Feast.”

This doesn’t surprise me in the least; Pope Francis seems like exactly the sort of person who would love this movie. But he also gets what it’s about completely right, and that’s what makes it so perfect for Thanksgiving 2016.

Babette’s Feast, based on a story by Isak Dinesen, is about a sect of austere, severe religious people living on a remote Denmark coast in the 19th century. They are led by the elderly daughters of the sect’s founder, they view pleasures with suspicion, as a distraction from God, and they eat only bland food.

The elders tentatively taste the feast.
The elders tentatively taste the feast.

But their lives are upended when Babette (Stéphane Audran) shows up at the sisters’ home, bearing a letter from an old friend and seeking refuge from violence in her native Paris. The whole story is foggy to them, and they’re suspicious of her. But she offers to work for free, and stays with them for 14 years, gaining their trust.

One day, she wins the lottery (I recognize this sounds outlandish, but stick with me), and instead of using the money to go back home at last, she uses it to prepare a lavish feast in honor of the sect’s founder.

Watching the uptight elders slowly relax away from their arguments and disapprovals into the beauty and conviviality of a meal made with love is pure pleasure. The feast Babette prepares is practically an act of worship — made by someone the group still considers beyond their bonds of acceptability, but who has patiently worked to show them love — and it works. Bridges are built. Bonds are forged. And a really good meal is shared.

That’s why I think the pope knows what’s up when it comes to Babette’s Feast (and a few other things), and why it’s perfect for a Thanksgiving flooded with people fretting about the conversations that take place with family and friends who might not all share the same political or religious views.

There is, perhaps, some kind of magic in a meal prepared with love. It might not heal everything. But it can go a long way.

Especially if there’s turtle soup.

Watch the trailer for Babette’s Feast:

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