Editor's note: "Through a Screen Darkly," a monthly commentary by CT Movies critic Jeffrey Overstreet, explores films old and new, as well as relevant themes and trends in cinema. The column continues the journey begun in Overstreet's book of the same name.
I want to see Julie and Julia, which opens this week. Meryl Streep makes a habit of being extraordinary, and casting her as Julia Child seems too good to be true. But I'm hungry for something more than memorable acting. I want to watch the food.
Movies about food have always held my attention. Mention Animal House: I think of the food fight. Mention Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, and I think of the man who ate too much—precisely, one after-dinner mint too much—and suffered disastrous consequences. When I think of The Fisher King, I think of a romantic scene in a Chinese restaurant, where Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer chased a sprig of broccoli around the table with their chopsticks.
With Pulp Fiction, I remember Vincent Vega as a violent buffoon—but also because of his feelings about five-dollar milkshakes and the "Royale with Cheese." In Kung Fu Panda, Po desires dumplings as much as Pooh Bear has a passion for honey.
In Stranger than Fiction, Harold Crik falls for a baker named Ana because she's beautiful and challenging. But Ana also gets Harold's attention because she talks him into tasting one of her chocolate chip cookies. That cookie is like a kiss breaking an evil curse, awakening him to a new world of sensation.
In Mostly Martha, the main character runs her restaurant kitchen as if she were a general at war, with no room for mistakes. But when she ends up caring for her orphaned niece, and makes room in her life for a chef with unconventional ideas, their days—and meals—together help her discover a richer way to live. (Watch the original. Avoid the cheap American imitation—No Reservations.)
In Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire—my favorite film—when the angel Damiel, who has been transformed into a human being, experiences a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, he begins to realize what is special about human experience. He relishes that coffee as if it were a sacrament.
Chocolat—a favorite for many chocoholics—has the simplicity and charm of a folk tale. A frisky young chocolatier named Vianne and her daughter move into a puritanical French village and set up a chocolate shop. As the villagers sample her wares, they begin to overcome their fear of sensual things. But Vianne, eager to help everyone indulge, also lives without the wisdom of restraint, plunging into an affair with a charming stranger. Religious people who frown on her impulsive ways are portrayed as foolish for having any standards. While the film does suggest that one can be both religious and adventurous, the conclusion leaves me feeling like I must choose between fearful abstinence and reckless abandon.
I could fill a book with the insights conveyed through wonderful films like Eat Drink Man Woman, Pieces of April, Tampopo, Soul Food, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For now, I'll recommend three favorites that encourage us to consider what—and how—we eat and drink.
Alexander Payne's Sideways introduces us to two men, Miles and Jack, who set out on a road trip to celebrate their bachelorhood one last time before Jack gets married.
Miles devotes himself to pursuit of the finer things. For him, the goal of the road trip is to visit wineries and have profound aesthetic experiences. Jack, on the other hand, drinks to get drunk, and is looking to fornicate with any woman who will cooperate.
The differences between these men become most clear when Miles describes what it is about wine that he loves. He does not drink to get drunk, but to savor a moment. He likes to meditate on all of the hard work that went into such craftsmanship. For him, wine makes strong connections between people, cultures, and histories.
And even as Miles describes this passion, sharing something with his new friend Maya, the wine cultivates love in a way he never expected.
At the end of the film, there is hope that one of these men might find a profound blessing, while the other charges along accepting only the cheapest of thrills.
(Caution: Sideways is rated R for a scene of an explicit sexual nature that was, alas, unnecessary to the film's success.)
Brad Bird's Ratatouille brought our attention to the fact that, while not everyone can be a master chef, we should not be too quick to judge. A great artist can come from anywhere.
In Pixar's extraordinary film, a food critic named Anton Ego has let his passion for food become a corrupting influence. He wields his expertise like a bludgeon, battering those who have less sophisticated taste. He flaunts his opinions and turns up his nose at whatever seems simple or ordinary.
But when an unlikely chef—one with a pink tail, whiskers, and a twitchy nose—surprises him with a work of excellence, Ego's world turns upside down. His perspective is transformed because it reminds him that he once sat down to a meal for love and the thrill of discovery.
"[T]here are times when a critic truly risks something," Ego declares, "and that is in the discovery and defense of the new."
He goes on to praise "an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source," and to say that both the cook and the cuisine challenged his preconceptions. "They have rocked me to my core."
In the humblest of locations, Ego discovers something deeply meaningful. Likewise, moviegoers find something richly meaningful in an all-ages animated movie—a genre that has led us to expect brainless entertainment and cheap jokes. These storytellers encourage us to value excellence, to pursue what is worthy of praise. But they've reminded us to do this with humility and an openness to discovery.
For me, there is no cinematic meal more beautiful and profound than Gabriel Axel's film Babette's Feast.
When Babette comes to work for a community of God-fearing folk on the barren coast of Jutland, she learns how to cook for people who abstain from sensual pleasure. Consigning themselves to bland boiled fish and dry bread, they don't realize that their new cook is one of the world's master chefs.
But when Babette wins the French lottery, and has an opportunity to escape, she does something extraordinary instead. She prepares an authentic French feast—the best she can prepare—for the villagers.
As she invests in blessing them, the villagers approach the table with fear and trembling. They pretend to ignore what they're eating, even as they're awakened to a world of transporting sensations. The reverence of their servant, the beauty of the presentation, and the myriad surprises of the meal give them joy and a kind of communion that they have been missing.
Babette is quietly fighting against the Gnostic lie that the spiritual life is separate from physical experience. She is revealing the glory of God to them through food. She shows them that food, like all of God's great gifts, is meant to be celebrated and shared with vigor, reverence, and gratitude. It might even have the power to make friends out of enemies.
When the meal's over, Babette demonstrates that even though she appreciates fine cuisine more than anyone in the village, she is humble enough to be content with just a sampling from the table—just as she has refrained from complaining about a diet of boiled fish.
This is a lesson that I—as a sometimes cantankerous film critic—need to learn, and learn, and learn again. I should acknowledge mediocrity and pursue excellence, in hopes of enjoying God's great and sensual blessings. But if I become snobbish about what pleases me, and show disdain for simpler things, then I'm surrendering to the impulse of ego. If I've learned anything about excellence, it's my responsibility to share that with humility and grace. And I must never cut myself off from encountering surprising revelations in unexpected places.
Perhaps it was Babette who inspired the two Italian cooks in the film Big Night, Primo and Segundo. After they serve an extravagant feast, they clean up the kitchen and sit down—exhausted—to a meal of their own. They haven't eaten any of their own masterpiece. They're content with simple plates of pasta. But in giving their best away, they've experienced something even more profound.
Do this in remembrance
It's interesting, this idea that characters would discover joy, freedom, and abundant life through the process of taking something into their mouths.
A wise man once asked his followers to commune with him in his life, and his death, by eating and drinking. Specifically, by partaking of bread and wine.
Both of these nourishing experiences—the eating of bread and drinking of wine—are made possible when organic materials are put through a rigorous, violent process, and then transformed into something new that brings life to others. There is a reason Christ chose bread rather than rice, and wine rather than grape juice. These things mean things. The more we meditate on what they are, the more we see that they are rich with poetic significance.
"Do this in remembrance of me," he said.
It is no exaggeration to say that Babette's Feast, with its simple story about a meal, has inspired me to a greater appreciation of excellence, but also a greater appreciation of humility, service, and—yes—the gospel.
© 2009 Jeffrey Overstreet subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.