A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Best Films on Food and Faith

By  EDWARD McNULTY

As the Bible says, we do “not live by bread alone”—but food is vital in our lives and in the movies. Without food our bodies wither away and die—a challenge in the 1993 film Alive, a true story about members of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashes high up in the Andes. Food also is a source of great pleasure, as we see in such films as Julie & Julia or Eat, Pray, Love—a film that emphasizes our spiritual relationship with food. As a film critic for many decades, I am confident that you’ll love many of these movies, which you can find on DVD or, in many cases, live streaming.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 1: Babette’s Feast

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Directed by Gabriel Axel. 1987. Rated G. 102 min.

Viewers step back into 19th-century Denmark, where we meet two elderly sisters and their fellow ascetic church members—stern and elderly, all of them. Into their lives comes Babette, a once famous female chef who has fled the French civil wars to become a lowly housekeeper and cook in Jutland. To mark this strict little congregation’s centennial, she prepares a meal so elegant and tasty that it overcomes the members’ vow not to enjoy it. Babette’s grand meal even becomes sacramental by reconciling various members who had been harboring grudges against each other. Only one of the guests, the erudite General who once sought to marry one of the sisters, recognizes the truth behind Babette’s main course. In his speech, he recognizes the grace that has enveloped them all. As viewers, we realize what a Christ figure the now humble cook and house servant is. The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. And, more importantly for this list, it won “Best On-Screen Recipe” at the 1997 Cinema and Food Retrospective Festival in Italy.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 2: Places in the Heart

Places in the Heart 1984Directed by Robert Benton. 1984. Rated PG. 111 min.

I know, food is not as central in the plot as in the first selection, and yet this film is book-ended by scenes of eating, the opening sequence showing people at breakfast around the village—some alone (one is homeless), others, black and white, gathered as families in homes and the local cafe. During the hard struggle by widow and mother Edna Spalding to harvest the cotton crop early and thus win the purse of money that will save the farm, she, her children, their blind boarder, her sister and husband, and the black itinerant worker Moze become like a family, which the closing sequence affirms. This is set at a Communion celebration in their church. As the trays are passed through the pews, we are surprised to see that even the black man forced by the Klan to leave town and Edna’s husband and a boy, both of whom have died violently, are in the pews partaking, the director/writer surrealistically affirming the reality of the Communion of Saints. The theme of forgiveness/reconciliation is also emphasized when the sister wordlessly forgives her husband as the pastor reads from 1 Corinthians 13.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 3: Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green TomatoesDirector by Jon Avnet. 1991. Rated PG-13. 137 min.

In a small Southern town two women run the Whistle Stop Café where food becomes a symbol of hospitality and counter-cultural racial tolerance. It is during the Depression, and none are turned away, be they hobo or “Negro.” The local sheriff warns the women that the Klan does not appreciate their serving “coloreds” (though the women do bow to custom by serving African Americans outside), but the women refuse to stop. There is a macabre touch later when the sheriff, looking into the disappearance of the abusive husband of one of the women, appreciates the meat sauce. Their story, told by a nursing home resident to a browbeaten wife, empowers her to rise up and assert herself against her domineering husband.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 4: Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire GrillDirected by Lee David Zlotoff. 1994. PG-13. 117 min.

The film’s title comes from the name of the grill in Maine where Percy, a young woman newly released from prison, hires on as a waitress. Of course, she does not immediately reveal her past to this town full of quirky folks. Despite the curiosity that rises around her, Percy manages to bring a large measure of grace to the grill’s elderly owner, to a verbally abused wife, and eventually to the whole town—even though she herself proves to be a terrible cook. There are many subplots in this film, including one about the plight of Vietnam veterans, but Percy clearly is the central character and redemptive force in the story. Although she turns out to be a Christ figure (though very different from Babette), she is, in Henry Nouwen’s phrase, “a wounded healer,” better at helping others than herself.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 5: Antwone Fisher

Antwone Fisher film posterDirected by Denzel Washington. 2002. PG-13. 120 min.

The movie begins with a dream in which a little boy walks into a barn. A huge table is loaded with sumptuous-looking food, and around it stands a large number of men, women, and children, all smiling their welcome to the boy. The boy dreamer, now a grown US sailor in trouble for his constant fighting, tells his therapist that he was given up by his mother and abused by his foster mother and sister. Advised to return to his hometown so that he can get to the source of his problems, Antwone with the help of his girl friend flies back to his Midwestern hometown and manages to find an aunt and uncle. The film ends after a heart-rending disappointment, the pain of which is swallowed up by the lavish dinner his newly discovered relatives have quickly brought together to welcome him into the family, a beautiful foretaste of a Messianic banquet.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 6: What’s Cooking?

Whats Cooking filmDirected by Gurinder Chadha. 2000. Rated PG-13. 109 min.

The film opens with Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving painting—and the rest of the movie shows us how diverse American families have become. It’s Thanksgiving and we meet four American families—African American, Jewish, Hispanic and Vietnamese—all preparing for the holiday. They live in the same Los Angeles neighborhood, but their variations make their dinners a far cry from that Norman Rockwell image. A good deal of the film focuses on the preparations for these meals. What unites these families are all of the surprises and challenges they face as generational expectations collide. While apparently separate through much of the movie, their stories are skillfully brought together at the very end by a surprising event. The great female cast includes Mercedes Ruehl, Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, and Kyra Sedgewick.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 7: Pieces of April

Pieces of April movieDirected by Peter Hedges. 2003. Rated PG-13. 81 min.

Pieces of April is one of Katie Holmes’s most memorable performances as April, the Goth-garbed black sheep of an upstate New York family. The rest of her family regards her as an utter failure—and, at first glance, her humble New York apartment suggests that she and her boyfriend are struggling to survive. Nevertheless, she invites her parents and siblings to her flat for a Thanksgiving dinner, partly to mend fences and also to meet her boyfriend. Her family holds such a dim view of April that they almost do not come. Two plots unfold throughout the film: April desperately tries to prepare a proper dinner, even after her oven quits and other disasters befall her; meanwhile, her parents and siblings fight among themselves as they make their way toward her apartment. Soon, most of April’s neighbors are involved in this event. The delightful climax again suggests a Messianic banquet.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 8: Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

Eat Drink Man Woman sceneDirected by Ang Lee. 1994. Not Rated. 124 min.

Chu, a widower and one of Taipei’s pre-eminent chefs, is the strict father of three unmarried daughters who still live in the large family house, but have distanced themselves from him. He insists that they dine with him every Sunday, but they eat dispiritedly—and one even works at a fast food restaurant. He has lost his sense of taste, a good metaphor for what has happened to them all. Beautiful shots of food preparation and consumption, as well as a new appreciation of each other!

There is an Americanized version of the film entitled Tortilla Soup about a widower Mexican-American chef worrying about the future of his three unmarried daughters. Despite his losing his sense of taste, he continues to cook sumptuous meals once a week for the family.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 9: Alive

Alive movie sceneDirected by Frank Marshall. Rated R. 120 min.

I will admit that the most bizarre choices for this list is Alive, about Uruguayan rugby players, stranded high in the snowy Andes, who find themselves driven to eat the body of a teammate. The survivors have run out of food and see no prospect of being rescued soon, so the dying player seeks to give the only thing he has to help his teammates survive, his body—and by his encouraging words to remove their sense of guilt. What a take on John 15:13! The film is especially moving, because it is based on British writer Piers Paul Read’s 1974 nonfiction book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. That critically praised book was based on the real-life tragedy of a Uruguayan charter flight that went down in 1972. That factual basis gives the emotionally gripping screenplay a real and haunting power.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 10: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia movie sceneDirected by Nora Ephron. 2009. Rated. 123 min.

This list would not be complete without including the Queen of the Kitchen and television’s first world-famous celebrity chef: Julia Child. The great Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay, but like the previous film on this list, Ephron’s screenplay is based on historical fact. Blogger Julie Powell, the author of Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, attained celebrity status with her online columns about cooking her way through Child’s famous cookbook. The Ephron movie intertwines the blogger’s life with the life of the famous chef and her devoted husband Paul. Although I enjoyed Julie’s portion of the film, I wanted less of Julie and more of Julia’s and Paul’s largely unknown story. Wow, they both worked for a US spy agency and got caught up in the McCarthy era anti-Communist frenzy! Tell us more! (Wonder about the specific connection between Julia Child and spiritual themes? Consider reading David Crumm’s Our Lent: Things We Carry, which includes a chapter on this connection.)

Best Films on Food and Faith, 11: Big Night

Big Night movie sceneDirected by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. 1978. Rated R. 107 min.

Two brothers have come from Italy to New York to open their dream restaurant, which they call Paradise. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the genius in the kitchen and Secundo (Tucci) manages the books and the customers. Primo refuses to cater to his customers’ wishes, and so the restaurant is failing for lack of business, whereas the one across the street serving mediocre food is a big success. That owner offers to ask the famous singer Louis Prima and his band to play at Paradise, which will attract a crowd and also the press. Most of the film is the preparation of the gourmet dishes and then, with a restaurant full of customers, waiting for the singer to show up. Where are the religious themes in this film? In short: Everywhere. To this day, college courses discuss the transcendent symbolism in the film. Or, as Roger Ebert put it more simply: The film “is about food not as a subject but as a language—the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.”

Best Films on Food and Faith, 12: Mostly Martha

Mostly Martha movie sceneDirected by Sandra Nettelbeck. 2001. Rated PG. 107 min.

This German film is about the transformation of a domineering chef forced to take custody of her eight year-old suddenly orphaned niece Lina. Chef Martha Klein is as abrasive with her staff and critical customers as is Chef Primo in The Big Night. The romance, and conflict arises when Italian sous-chef Mario arrives, his sunny, playful disposition changing the frigid atmosphere of the kitchen. Whereas the obsessive Martha had failed to bring Lina out of her depression, Mario quickly rekindles the girl’s interest in life—and food. Martha soon sees Mario as a threat, and Lina causes no end of crises for all three of them. As in The Big Night, there are many levels of spiritual reflection in Mostly Martha. At one point, for example, Martha is so exasperated in her attempts to make Lina behave that she tells her: “I wish I had a recipe for you, that I could follow.” The 2007 American remake is worth seeing—after all, it stars Catherine-Zeta Jones—but you should first see the original!

And to make it a Baker’s Dozen: Fordson—Faith, Fasting, Football

Fordson Faith Fasting Football sceneDirected by Rashid Ghazi. 2011. 92 min.

Read the Spirit Editor David Crumm (who I mentioned above) recommended that we include this 13th film and I must explain that it is the one feature on this list that I have not seen myself. David recommends this documentary because it is a rare feature-length film exploring the Muslim experience in America with food—and the lack of food—during the annual fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week as Stephanie Fenton’s story about Ramadan explains. You won’t find this movie on Netflix or on Amazon, at this point, but here is director Rashid Ghazi’s website for the movie. The documentary is remarkably moving as it follows a group of teen-aged football players, trying to observe Ramadan’s strict fast without food or water during daylight hours. This deep commitment to faith and family traditions runs up against equally deep pride in their community, school and football team. How can athletes hope to prepare for the big game when they are denied food and water, day after day? There is a lot to inspire us—and to discuss—in Fordson.

Care to read more about Faith and Food?

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