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The Sacramental Imagination in Culinary Films

The Sacramental Imagination in Culinary Films

“Foodie” films are my favorites – films that use food as a symbol for communicating a deeper, more existential purpose. I recently watched Paris Can Wait. In it, Diane Lane portrays Anne, a middle-aged woman who is at a crossroads in her life and her marriage. Her successful movie producer husband (Alec Baldwin) takes her on a trip to France promising to meet her in Paris after he takes care of business. His associate (Arnaud Viard) offers to drive her to Paris from Cannes. This seven-hour road trip turns into a two-day adventure experiencing the life, food, and wisdom of the people who live on one of the world’s most luscious pastoral landscapes. Anne’s joy in life returns as she savors the flavors of French cuisine while enjoying the attention of her companion. When his attentions turn romantic she staves off his advances committed to her marriage, yet he shows her how to truly live each moment with passion and wonder. The food symbolizes her desire to savor life, not to drudge through her daily experiences, but to be alive with fervor and zest, something French cuisine specializes in. This and many other “foodie” films offer a sacramental vision of our world that comes naturally to Christians as our faith lets us see God through the concrete and tangible.

 

Sacramentality

           

The Church’s Seven Sacraments use symbols and signs as visible forms of invisible grace. The ritualized actions of baptism, reconciliation, Eucharist, confirmation, anointing of the sick, matrimony, and holy orders use concrete symbols that point to the sacred, more specifically, God present to us in creation, incarnation and resurrection.

 

Besides these formal Sacraments, other human experiences can be considered sacramental (small ‘s’) encounters with the Divine. This sacramentality is the human basis of the very idea of sacrament. In other words, God uses the material world to make God’s self known and accessible to us. Since God is present everywhere, everything speaks of God’s grace and invites us to a participation in God’s very life. This is the sacramentality present in our everydayness.

 

Sacramentality also involves images as symbols and signs that need our contemplation. When we look at “foodie” films, for example, we can ask what the film desires of us, not necessarily what it means. This is the same of sacraments and sacramentality. We discover not what they mean but what they convey—the presence, the gift, the grace. The divine life we receive in the sacraments, as well as sacramental encounters, is that more that we seek, that desire deep within us for what is beyond our material reach. The symbols in liturgical rituals bring us beyond the surface of the material and enable us to “touch” God. As it says in Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” This is the very sacramentality of creation.

 

Sacramental Imagination

 

A most delightful film, Le Chef dishes up mouth-watering creations but also charming human interactions that delight the soul. The self-taught cook, Jacky (Michael Youn), needs to make more money as his wife is about to have a baby so he takes on a painting job. He meets Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno), a master chef who is about to lose his position and reputation if he doesn’t hold onto his Michelin stars. Alexander offers Jacky an unpaid trial job at his restaurant as sous chef after tasting his cooking at the retirement home where he spontaneously helped the cooks create tasty meals for the residents. Jacky saves Alexandre from losing his position by changing up his tried and true masterpieces with an even more unique flavor and zest. The food in this film is supernatural. It brings us into the relationships, the human drama of intimacy, fear, hope, and joy. When a chef cooks with passion their cuisine becomes a love story, an experience of the divine. It is a sacramental moment of entering into profound communion with what is beyond the material world. For Jacky, his creativity forces him to look within himself in order to let his masterpieces raise him to seeing beauty, truth, and goodness around and within himself. He embodies a sacramental imagination.

 

We are called to develop the sacramental imagination as well. When we view reality through the lens of faith, we participate in the divine life of God. This is where the finite meets the infinite and all of creation can be a mediation of grace.

 

Filmmaking and Sacramentality

 

The core of sacramentality is the use of symbols and signs to covey deeper realities. Signs point to something beyond themselves. Symbols are more complex signs that convey a series of meanings and point to the very depths of things. They allow us to see beyond, to feel deeply, and to contemplate. Films lend themselves to this way of using symbols and filmmakers, as artists, often think symbolically and have a peculiar sacramental awareness that other people don’t. Artists tend to reach toward mystery, the unexplainable, the existential. They extend toward feeling, sensitivity, and reflective thinking that enters into mystery while reflecting on human experience. John Shea explains, “Sacramental consciousness does not desert the concrete, historical world but turns it into a symbol” (Stories of God, 21).

 

This symbolic and sacramental lens is present in filmmakers such as Lasse Hallstrom, in his rich depictions of human experience and relationships in Chocolat, Hundred-Foot Journey, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ronald Krause also come to mind. When watching films with a sacramental imagination, we can see that symbols convey deeper meaning, that grace is made visible through nature, and that God’s presence is touched in human experience.

 

The cultural art of cinema provides numerous other examples of sacramentality. Culinary feasts deliver a wealth of symbolism representative of the Eucharistic liturgy, such as in Big Night, with the preparations, sharing of a meal in love and communion, forgiveness and reconciliation and self-offering. In Mostly Martha, a German film, food is a symbol of healing for Martha after she experiences the loss of her sister. And in Chef, Carl Casper enters into a more profound relationship with his ten year old son and his ex-wife when he leaves the competitive restaurant scene to obtain a food truck cooking the food people most enjoy. The comedy Today’s Special shows Samir, whose dream to study under a famous French chef changes when his father suffers a heart attack forcing him to take over the Tandoori Palace, a nearly bankrupt family restaurant. His dreams take a different route when he learns the art of Indian cooking and the passion it can engender, leading to forgiveness and reconciliation.

 

Your Next “Foodie” Film

 

As we begin November when our thoughts and plans turn to the feast of Thanksgiving and the meal we will share and celebrate, think and pray about your own sacramental imagination. How can you grown in your ability to see God in the world around you and in the film stories you experience? God the Father is clearest to us when we contemplate Jesus, God’s Incarnate Son. Christ Jesus not only mediates the presence of God but also is God’s very self-communication. He is grace. He is salvation. He is justification. Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrament that transmits actual grace upon us believers, the gift of himself.

 

So, for the next “foodie” film you see, or just as you celebrate Thanksgiving, remember the symbols in the creation around you and discover the deeper meaning they convey. “The saving grace that God makes available to us in and through creation is the gift of divine love that exceeds even our wildest hope” (Shea, 24). It is precisely this view of creation that enables us to think differently, with sacramental imagination, about the material and finite, seeing them as access points to experience the infinite beauty and goodness of God. 

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