Several things have worked against the development of serious Christian films in the United States. From its beginnings, the American film industry has included some, but very few, Christian filmmakers. By and large, it has been determinedly secular; and, because of the nature of the business, the need for a truly enormous worldwide audience to turn a profit, American filmmakers have felt it necessary to present a secular point of view, even when touching on religious subjects or themes. There are some famous Hollywood Christian epics, of course, from the earliest days, extravaganzas such as Ben Hur, The Sign of the Cross, The Greatest Story Ever Told, etc. These have almost nothing in common with the two films I wish to consider here. The standard Hollywood versions (no matter how elegantly produced or visually interesting) are, in a narrative sense, two-dimensional, literal-minded versions of biblical stories or ancient myth and history, in many ways fundamentally at odds with Christian storytelling and implications. They are the letter and not the spirit. They are spectacle with no real meaning beyond the surface excitement. They are also very expensive movies. At their best, they are simply secular salutes to the Christian Faith. Secular filmmakers, addressing a multicultural and essentially secular audience, tend to reflect the assumptions, including the ethics, of our society. Our secular society seems compelled to create straightforward dramatic conflicts of “good guys versus bad guys.” We are not neutral about anything much. In the Hollywood version of reality, we first identify who the good guys and the bad guys are. Then, after some ups and downs, close shaves, the good guys usually triumph. It is the increasingly simplistic myth played out in a society where people, places, and things are labeled as good or bad and become symbols of one thing and another. This habit, ethical as it may sometimes appear to be, has serious consequences when applied to complicated subjects or ambiguous problems.
In most of the big Hollywood blockbusters of today, richly decorated with sex and violence, ethics are often irrelevant to the story line; and spiritual experience, what we might call a religious dimension, seems to be entirely absent from the world. But, to be sure, the world as presented in these hugely extravagant secular entertainments, a world without Christ, without even the shadow or memory of the Christ, calls for redemption and salvation. The world as it is depicted in most secular films makes a powerful case against itself, calls for change and conversion.
The two films I am considering, Babette’s Feast (1987) and The Virgin Spring (1960), however, are in the Christian tradition of parables. The meaning of a parabolic story is inextricably part of the story, not separate from it. Not different from it. Parables do not mean something else or even something more than themselves. The point is that the meaning of the narrative (story) is wedded to the story; it is part of the story. The story and its implications are one and the same.
It is not what we call allegory. It is not something that can be translated into something else. One of the reasons that, for centuries, in the Christian tradition, teachers and preachers spoke in parables was (and remains) the belief that direct and simple statement distorts the truth by oversimplifying it and, thus, turns truth into untruth. To tell the whole truth, you have to do so in parables.
Babette’s Feast does not make the simplistic case that the people in their austere and pious religious sect were “wrong” and that Babette was “right.” The intention of Isak Dinesen, the author of the original story on which the film is closely based, is to present a world in which, in the words of the prophet and of the old hymn, “Bliss and righteousness shall embrace each other.” Call it joy and piety. Although a certain amount of satirical fun is intended in the depiction of the little sect and its aging members, they and their beliefs are not held up for ridicule. They are needed in the world. So is Babette. So is her feast.
The film version follows Dinesen’s story line with more than usual fidelity. Babette, a French Catholic refugee, is taken in as a servant to two sisters, daughters of the pastor of a Pietist sect. After unexpectedly coming in to a small fortune, Babette uses her winnings to provide an exquisite feast of French delicacies for the sisters and their guests, in commemoration of their late father. Some of the slight differences (most having to do with what you can or cannot do technically in film) are interesting. In the story, the action takes place in Norway, in a town called Berlevåg, situated on a fjord with mountains all around. She describes the place as looking “like a child’s toy-town of little wooden pieces painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colors.” The film, however, is set in Denmark on Jutland. The houses are whitewashed, with thatched roofs emphasizing the austerity of life there. The Norwegian setting would, in its beauty, have been distracting.
There are other differences in the motivations and depth of character. For example, Achille Papin, the great opera singer, is presented in the story as over the hill, on the way down from the peak of his operatic career. His motive is more than simply the discovery of a brilliant new talent. He is also thinking (hoping) that the discovery will help jump-start his career and keep it going for a few more years. Lorens Loewenhielm, the dashing cavalry officer, is allowed a little more background—a family myth that an ancestor married “a female mountain spirit,” and that the family is gifted with second sight:
There rose before his eyes a sudden, mighty version of a higher and purer life, with no creditors, dunning letters or parental lectures, with no secret, unpleasant pangs of conscience and with a gentle golden-haired angel to guide him.
As the General, he plays a huge part in the film’s dinner scene, because he is the only one present (excluding Babette in the kitchen) who actually knows what is being served. This information is as much for the benefit of the audience as for anybody else. In the story, however, it is mostly in his thoughts. He thinks of these things so that the reader can know. It is not relevant or necessary that the old people gathered at the table should know everything. They experience the feast, and it changes them. In the story, we are told that the General’s brilliant and social wife was not much interested in food and that he “secretly blamed her for the indigestion from which he sometimes suffered.” This is one point too many for the film to make.
What is said of him could as well be said of the others: “He was a moral person, loyal to his king, his wife, and his friends, an example to everybody.” He is an ethical man in the secular world. “But there were moments when it seemed to him that the world was not a moral but a mystic concern.”
Isn’t that the essential theme of the whole story? It is not that morals are irrelevant, and nobody here is presented as immoral or as unethical. But the world (reality, both physical and spiritual), is much more than that. It is “a mystic concern.”
There is one sharp difference between the story and the film. In the story, at the end, Babette is made more human and dimensional and complex in ways that might cloud and confuse the effect of the film. And, in the film, she is already presented as complex and moved by contradictory motives. Art is not the answer. Nor ethics. What is celebrated, instead, is the mystical union of joy and righteousness. Babette’s wonderful gift, this joyous feast, is not wasted on those who cannot appreciate it. Instead, it works. It brings these people together and restores them. Nobody’s motives matter any more.
One way to look at this Christian film, with its perfect balance of paradoxes, is in its presentation of the dilemma of the Christian and the Creation—all of its given “gifts and creatures.” In this little parable, describing the world and our condition in it, neither strict asceticism (salt codfish and ale bread) and good works nor the fabulous feast, by themselves, are enough. Taken together, as contradictory as they are, they are altogether appropriate.
Many events and parables from the New Testament are alluded to and echoed here. Consider, for example, the case of the poor widow who is singled out by Jesus (in Saint Luke’s Gospel): “For all these rich men have of their abundance cast unto the offerings of God: but she in her penury hath cast in all the living she had.” And, most famously, the story of Martha and Mary of Bethany so often preached from both sides of the coin—Martha, who acted as the good servant, and Mary, who anointed the feet of Jesus with an inordinately expensive ointment and then was chided for it (by Judas Iscariot, as it happens). To which complaint Jesus replied, “Let her alone. Against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor ye always have with you; but me you have not always.” Babette, in that tradition, spends all that she owns in the world to prepare and serve a feast for all the others, who may not understand, yet are deeply touched and changed by her gift.
The Virgin Spring is a much darker movie, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, because this picture is done in classic black and white rather than in color. And a good part of the action takes place at night. In Babette’s Feast, the color serves to soften the rigor and austerity of the setting; and that contrast expresses the tension between joy and righteousness, which is at the heart of the story. We are, in a sense, prepared for the story because we have already experienced the stark austerity of the setting and in the lives of the little religious cult. Not so in The Virgin Spring. A large part of it takes place in darkness or in the dim lights of dawn, of twilight, and in the scattered light of the forest. The subject is darker, too. Here, we are less concerned with the aesthetic level of experience, and we move deeper into the problems of justice and mercy.
Its celebrated and now widely known and honored director, Ingmar Bergman, is the rebellious child of a Lutheran clergyman, coming from a country that, within modern times, used to have an establishment of religion, a state church. Bergman’s personal rebellion has led him to deal with profound ethical problems as they impact on the lives of Christians. The Virgin Spring is based on a medieval folk song, one that had been around in various versions and languages for a very long time. As described by the screenwriter, Ulla Isakson, it tells the story that serves as the narrative skeleton for the movie:
The young virgin, Karin, who, on her way to early mass, is attacked and killed by three wild brigands, has her innocence proved by the miraculous appearance of a spring at the place where she was killed. And by the spring her father promises to build a church as penance for the vengeance he took for his daughter’s death. . . . The original drama of violence and revenge is placed in a Christian context where the need for reconciliation and the certainty of God’s mercy became the important parts of the song.
The film adds a good deal of complexity to that basic story line, bringing in elements of fairy tale and of pagan myths and rituals and tying it all together with a Christian theme presented from a Christian point of view—all the while maintaining the essential simplicity of folk song and fairy tale. Pared down (and oversimplified), the story is that the young, blonde, and beautiful Karin, spoiled child of Sir Tore and his wife, Lady Mareto, dresses up in her finest clothes and sets off on horseback, accompanied by her pregnant and witchy stepsister, Ingeri, to carry a gift of candles to her church. (This is well before the Reformation. It is, then, a Catholic church.) The stepsister is frightened of the forest and stops at the cottage of an old man, a hunchbacked pagan, gifted with second sight. Evidently, the persistence of the pagan myths and rituals and the survival of the pagan gods continued in deep rural Scandinavia, some aspects and practices of the old beliefs gradually becoming assimilated into the Christian world.
Riding on alone, Karin encounters three herdsmen, two men and a young boy with a small flock of goats. They are urgently thin and ragged, and one of the men is tongueless, possibly as the result of some kind of punishment. In perfect innocence, she pauses to chat with them, and, moved to compassion, she dismounts and shares her food with them. On impulse, or, anyway, without much premeditation, they then proceed to rape her, to rob her of her fine clothing, and to kill her. They are enraged that all she has carried in her saddle bags are some candles.
They leave her body and move on.
At nightfall, the three, unaware of the connection, arrive at the gate of Sir Tore’s campground. He lets them in, also acting out of compassion. “You can sleep in my manor hall. There will be frost tonight.” They join the others of the household at supper, and, afterward, he lets them have a warm place to sleep. Of the three, the boy, traumatized by what he has earlier witnessed, is ill, unable to eat.
A little later in the evening, one of the men tries to sell Karin’s clothing to Lady Mareta, as some things that belonged to his sister. She immediately recognizes the clothing but gives no sign of it. She tells her husband in the privacy of their bedchamber. He quietly, carefully locks the only door to the hall. Ingeri has now returned and confirms the truth. Sir Tore cuts birch leaves and takes a ritual sauna bath. Of this act, the screenwriter says:
The steam bath, which in the film he orders made ready before the revenge, has no ritual background, to be sure, but as a symbol of his need to be clean before taking vengeance, as before a sacrifice, it has both heathen and Christian connections.
Sir Tore, arming himself not with his sword but with a slaughtering knife, enters the hall, wakes the three, and kills them one at a time in a violent struggle. There is a moment before the killing of the boy, a moment in which he might not do it. But in his rage for revenge, he does so. As Ulla Isakson explains: “The father’s fury of revenge likewise has heathen roots: he takes revenge automatically and without a moment of doubt, and he is wholeheartedly supported by his wife.”
Next, they assemble the household and set out in search of Karin’s body. Finding her, Sir Tore is suddenly struck by the horror of the whole story.
“Lord, have mercy on me for what I have done,” he says. He staggers away, raises his arms, and speaks to God. God’s answer is immediate, simple, and miraculous. When they lift Karin’s body off the ground, a new spring of pure water gushes forth from the earth. The stepsister drinks from the spring.
Some of the issues raised by this film are complex when considered by contemporary Christians, ourselves living in a violent, secular, and highly legalistic society. It is a story of justice and mercy, to be sure. We need, first of all, to understand that, in a strictly legal sense, Sir Tore has committed no crime. At that time, a land-owning knight and a righteous man is not above the law; he is the law. There is never any fear or apprehension of secular legal consequences as there surely would be today. His crime is more serious than that—it is a crime against God. And his recognition of this truth is much more remarkable than we, today, might realize.
Christian ideas about justice and mercy, of the New Law replacing the Old Law, are complicated and often (as in so many other things) paradoxical, logically contradictory. But essentially the sense of it, as interpreted by Christian thinkers for the better part of 2,000 years, is that justice in the world should be tempered with mercy toward those who are truly repentant. The word is tempered, not replaced. For a king or a lord or a judge to offer mercy without justice, or to be merciful in the absence of appropriate remorse and repentance on the part of the offender, is considered to be a crime in itself—the crime of tyranny. As one of Chaucer’s wise men, an exemplar of wisdom and chivalry, Duke Theseus in “The Knight’s Tale,” says: “Fy upon a lord that will have no mercy, but is a lion in both word and deed to him who is in repentance and dread.”
What we see, then, in The Virgin Spring is a worldly lord, in repentance and dread before his Lord, granted loving mercy in the form of that miraculous spring.
But there is a bit more to it. His promise to build a church with his own hands is more or less meaningless and irrelevant. God’s love and forgiveness and grace are not to be earned or bargained for. In responding to this story, we need, also, to keep in mind the American attitude toward revenge. We seem to think of the need for revenge as a kind of old-fashioned disease, one that has been stabilized, controlled, and all but eliminated from our natures—like smallpox. We have worked to purify our secular system of criminal justice from overt elements of revenge. We are often much more concerned about the vague possibility of revenge by the victims, outside of the law’s system and bureaucracy, than we are troubled by the crimes against and the suffering of the victims. We seem to be gradually losing our understanding of the profound human hunger for revenge. To most Christians of the Christian era, well into the 19th century, righteous revenge was a deep desire, part of our basic, fuller human nature. Certainly, they took the urge to right wrongs in the world much more seriously than we do: For a righteous person to control or suppress his nature was an exceptional, even a noble, act, even though it was required, a commandment. Only the saints, following the example of Jesus, were, by the grace of God, spared this terrible inner conflict.
Only in a society that is extraordinarily considerate of all kinds of human hungers, treating most of them as needs to be satisfied—or, perhaps, sublimated, as preferences without consequences—do we consider the lust for revenge to be atavistic and inapplicable to our lives.
Similarly, our era, for the first time in history, misunderstands the relationships of justice and mercy, of the New Law and the Old Law. We tend to believe the New Law has repudiated the Old Law. At the entrances of many of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, there are, among many other things, two figures on either side of the central doorway. The Synagogue, on the right hand, stands blindfolded with the broken staff of worldly dominion (or tyranny), in one hand, and the tables of the Mosaic Law, in the other. On the other side is the Church, a crowned figure with eyes wide open, holding the cross in one hand and a chalice in the other. The blindfold of the Synagogue is not the same thing as the familiar figure of Justice with her scales. As one leading scholar of the Middle Ages, D.W. Robertson, Jr., puts it: “Her blindfold indicates her inability to see the spiritual realities beneath the surfaces of the visible and tangible.” That is, without fully considering the inner as well as the outer truth, you might as well be blind. Robertson has written the following about the distinction between the Old Law and the New:
The whole point of the New Law, on the message of the New Testament, was felt to be that mercy is available through Christ to all those who are truly penitent. The Old Law, it was said, told men what not to do, but offered no relief from the almost impossible task of obeying all its admonitions. The New Law provided an opportunity to love God and one’s fellow man in such a way that contrition might follow violation of the moral law. Medieval Christianity was a religion of love, not of righteousness.
The Virgin Spring, while it speaks darkly to our lives and to these times when terrible crimes are commonplace, when murder and rape and the loss of innocence are routine and scarcely more than statistics, while it speaks to us directly, is also the remarkable story of a good man—a severe and strict man, true, but also a righteous and compassionate one, who overcomes his own just nature in recognizing and repenting his ethical conduct. In the end, ethics have nothing to do with it. Nor, for that matter, does his tragic repentance and promise to God. All that matters is God’s gift to him, and to all mankind, shown in the spring of water. The author tells us, appropriately, that there is a spring in a churchyard in Ostergotland which has come to be taken as the spring of this legend and where people to this day come on Midsummer Eve to drink the water for its healing powers.