Sunday 29 September 2013

Ice cream as an index of spiritual life: a note on Pope Francis' favourite film

Pope Francis' interview last week attracted a storm of media commentary. Apparently what everyone found interesting were his remarks about homosexual relationships and so forth. But what intrigued me most was a deeper and more important doctrinal matter: I refer to the Pope's comments about movies. As it turns out, the Holy Father’s favourite film is not (as had previously been reported) Babette's Feast, but Fellini's 1954 film La Strada.

These two movies have one thing in common. Each one, in its own way, sees eating as an index of spiritual life. In Babette's Feast, a meal becomes the occasion of joy, grace, forgiveness, salvation. Just as Babette's ingredients are transformed into a work of art, so the hearts of those who sit at her table are transfigured as the meal unfolds. Their ability to respond to food and drink becomes an index of their ability to respond to one another – to forgive old grievances, acknowledge old loves, reconcile themselves to failed hopes, and, in sum, to see all life's painful contradictions embraced by an infinite mercy.

La Strada is also a story about grace. But it is about grace rejected. The film charts the moral and spiritual degradation of the strongman Zampano, played by Anthony Quinn. Zampano responds with cruelty to the childlike innocence of Gelsomina. He beats her and rapes her. He belittles her, not realising that she is his only chance of salvation. He steals from a convent in spite of her pleading. Right in front of her eyes he strikes a clown and kills him. After the killing, Gelsomina comes unravelled and for the first time Zampano seems to see her, to be moved by her. Perhaps he has even begun to love her? But he hardens his heart to the grace that is offered him in her brokenness. While she is sleeping by the roadside he rides away, leaving her abandoned in the bitter cold.

Many scenes in La Strada involve eating and drinking. Zampano's moral decline can be charted by the meals he eats – from his first meal with Gelsomina (where he wolfs down her cooking, then calls it "shit"); to the meal at the restaurant where he gets drunk and leaves with another woman; to the last climactic meal of a solitary ice cream cone. I call it the climactic meal though it is not an obviously important scene like the great meal in Babette's Feast. It all happens in a few seconds, so quickly you could miss it. But for me it is the most poignant scene in the film. I will even say I find it one of the most spiritually disturbing moments in all cinema.

Here is what happens.

It is some years after Zampano's abandonment of Gelsomina. We see him with other circus folk. With a few abrupt words he rejects a woman's company and walks down the promenade. He stops at an ice cream vendor and buys a lemon ice cream. Walking away, he eats it – in one mouthful. The ice cream is gone in one bite. Zampano is looking about and doesn't even seem to notice what he is eating. Then a moment later he stuffs the empty cone into his mouth and crunches it up. It is all as thoughtless and perfunctory as if he had been chewing his nails. Throughout most of the film our characters are seen eating scraps, gathering crumbs from the ground, scraping offensive-looking slop out of big tin bowls. But this is ice cream. Ice cream! The most luxurious food seen anywhere in the film. A perfect symbol of innocence, glory, the grace of childhood. After everything that has happened we can scarcely believe that Zampano is eating ice cream. 

He eats it. But he does not – because he cannot – enjoy it.

Most critics have interpreted the last scene of La Strada, where Zampano collapses weeping on the beach, as some kind of spiritual enlightenment, a promising sign of repentance and conversion. But they are wrong. Zampano is a man beyond redemption. The ice cream tells us so. All the joy has been wrung out of his life. He is so sour that for him even ice cream is not sweet. He is dead inside – dead to Gelsomina, dead to grace, dead (therefore) to the simple righteous pleasure of eating ice cream on a promenade in the sun.

Because eating is social, food and grace go together. That is what both films show. Babette's feast opens the hearts of her friends to one another (and so to God). But when Zampano hardens his heart to Gelsomina (and so to God), his heart becomes unable to respond even to ice cream. He eats with his mouth, but his heart tastes nothing. After such eating, what forgiveness?

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