THAT’S STANLEY TUCCI (left) and Anthony Shaloub as a pair of devoted but mismatched brothers running an Italian restaurant in the film Big Night. Primo (Shaloub) is a gifted chef who longs to express himself through his mastery of classic Italian cuisine; bro Secondo (Tucci) just wants to fill the dining room at the Paradise with paying customers.
This proves problematic since Primo’s elegant dishes are lost on their 1950s era Jersey Shore clientele. The high-strung chef is too proud and stubborn to serve up the Italian-American glop their diners crave and which would make their little resto a success.
The sibs briefly consider throwing in the torchon and joining their uncle at his restaurant in Rome, but egged on by fellow restaurateur and frenemy Pascal, who makes a veiled promise to deliver bandleader Louis Prima to the restaurant, they decide to risk everything on a last ditch attempt to make their mark with a single go-for-broke, blow-out event – the Big Night of the title.
Chef Primo goes to extraordinary lengths to prepare the most elaborate and spectacular meal he is capable of. In the end, the celebrity bandleader is a no-show. Guests gorge themselves on Primo’s masterpiece in a what-the-hell mood as betrayals are revealed. One by one the disillusioned partyers say goodnight until only the brothers are left.
When Big Night was released in 1996 the country hadn’t yet gone food crazy, but it was ramping up. I was teaching food history at B.U.’s (then) new graduate program in gastronomy and looking for film material that took food seriously enough as a subject to provide more than entertainment. I screened Tree of Wooden Clogs and Itami Juzo’s Tampopo (of course), but by far the most powerfulwas Gabriel Axel’s 1987 adaptation of the Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) novella Babette’s Feast.
There is nothing more fundamental to our shared humanity than the need to eat with regularity and a measure of ritual.
The story is set in the bleak landscape of Jutland where a French woman, Babette, fleeing reprisals against the insurgents of the 1871 Paris Commune (she had been an arsonist) is taken in by the daughters of a minister who had been the spiritual leader of a severely moralistic and self-denying Protestant sect. We learn that each daughter had the chance early in life to flee the tiny Pietist enclave and join the larger world, but chose not to. Babette becomes their cook. Her French ways seem strange – even vaguely diabolical – to her rural Danish neighbors.
Though talented in the kitchen and a shrewd bargainer in the market, Babette accommodates herself to the primitive dietary regimen observed by the sect. Meanwhile, with their charismatic pastor long dead, the little flock has increasingly become a hive of petty jealousy and grudge-bearing – a burden to the now frail sisters.
When Babette learns she has drawn a winning ticket in the French lottery, she can think of nothing better to do with the money than stage a magnificent supper for her aged benefactors and their congregation.
The final thirty minutes of the film are occupied with preparations for the meal and the scene at the table as we watch a succession of Babette’s dishes first tenderize then restore the cranky oldies to their humanity. Youthful indiscretions are recalled; trepasses forgiven.
The group seems to grow more youthful with each course, as if grand cru Burgundy and cailles en sarcophage would gradually make Benjamin Buttons of them all. Eventually we learn Babette’s secret: she had been the chef at the Cafe Anglais – a cathedral of Parisian haute cuisine.
In the penultimate scene, her guests totter out into the night, gaze at the stars, embrace, and head home: seemingly transformed by their experience at Babette’s table. Dinesen’s message (or one of them) appears to be that in the hands of an artist food and wine have the power to renew, refresh, and restore the human spirit as well as the body.
Big Night reminds us that hunger is the interest we pay on a recurring debt for which eating provides a reprieve but no permanent release.
In stark contrast to the glowing finale of Babette’s Feast, the last frames of Big Night are deflating. As the brothers pull up chairs in the resto’s little kitchen the mood is desultory, resigned. After all the effort, hours, hopes,and multiple courses of spectacular and expensive dishes, they’re right back where they started . . . and hungry to boot.
Babette may be the more rewarding film to watch, in part because it affirms that there are times when a single shared meal can have a transformative, even transcendent effect – something we would all like to (and should) believe. Meanwhile, Big Night reminds us that hunger the interest we pay on a recurring debt for which eating provides a reprieve but no permanent release.
It’s a less ennobling truth, perhaps, but one we can’t lose sight of. There’s simply nothing more fundamental to our shared humanity than the common need to eat with regularity and a measure of ritual. I’ll leave you to decide whether the former represents a French approach to the problem of appetite and satisfaction, and the latter the Italian take on it. But it seem to me that neither gives the full picture; each is incomplete without the other. We need Primo and Babette.
Good wine and good food lovingly prepared and served won’t make Benjamin Buttons of us, but enjoyed in the right spirit they may well make us better human beings in multiple ways. A worthwhile thing to ponder as we begin a new year.
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