Lessons from Les Mis

We went to see Les Miserables with friends yesterday. I’d never seen the show because I’ve rather gone off musicals as shallow, show biz stuff. I used to joke that life was miserable enough…

I was won over. There are so many powerful Catholic themes in the show, and the film communicates them very well. There is, of course, the question of justice and mercy. Javert’s self righteousness and legalism countered by the Bishop’s kindness and mercy which inspires Valjean to be merciful even to Javert. Very insightful that Valjean’s mercy destroys Javert. He can’t cope with such a destruction of his whole reason for living. His life is lonely and empty and ends in despair while Valjean’s life is full of meaning and action and love.

What I found especially moving was the ripple effect of the Bishops’ kindness. His gift of the silver to Valjean is extravagant and foolish. His mercy is everlasting. This extravagant act  not only ennobles Valjean, but it ripples down to touch and inspire virtually  every character Valjean touches. So it is even with the little acts of kindness and self sacrifice in our lives. Their effects ripple down to others forever. The goodness grows. It is fruitful and multiplies.

But if this is true of goodness, it is true in a darker way of evil. If we allow evil to flourish in our hearts it grows like a poisonous cancer and spreads to others. If we seek revenge; if we do not follow the way of forgiveness; if we harbor evil and allow it to fester it destroys and kills.

There is, also, the power of forgiveness at work. Allowing God’s forgiveness to work in our own lives to start with, then the power of God’s forgiveness to work through us to others. Forgiveness is like the bishop’s gift of silver. It is extravagant and foolish. Have you ever noticed that only  Christianity, of all world religions, teaches forgiveness? Judaism does to a small degree, but Christ comes and brings into the world that same extravagant and unexpected gift–a gift that is a sign of contradiction to the world–a gift that can only be achieved through an act of great self sacrifice.

The image therefore of the crucifix which abounds in the film is perfect. In film theory there is something called ‘an image system’. It is an image that is repeated many times in the film in many ways without a direct reference. The image system resonates within the eye and the mind and carries and projects the inner meaning of the film. So when Valjean is redeemed at the beginning he is given the silver crucifix and candles by the bishop. They re-appear throughout the film as the abiding image and remain as the pointer beyond.

Les Miserables shows us the power of Catholic art in the world. All around us the voices of atheism, secularism and unbelief rage and howl. Catholicism is derided and scorned. Clergy are wasted and destroyed. The faithful are mocked and the faith is undermined. Then a global phenomenon like “Les Mis” grabs everybody’s heart and exercises everybody’s tear ducts, and at that moment in the dark intimacy of the cinema people believe. No matter what their outwardly stated beliefs or their confused and lonely lives, they believe in justice and mercy. They believe in self sacrifice and love. They believe in perseverance and nobility. They believe in such a thing as a good and kindly priest, a noble and penitent sinner and a path through life that can be one of redemption and release.

When art works like this it goes around all the intellectual arguments and anger. It circumvents all the clever atheism and secularism. It appeals directly to the hearts of millions and plants a seed there of truth, beauty and goodness that cannot be erased. The fact that the film takes place within the French revolution shows that this kind of life is revolutionary. It is subversive to preach forgiveness and justice and mercy  and the reality of truth, beauty and goodness. This is truly Christian art–not just a pretty film with a nice moral ending, but a story that is deeply and mysteriously beautiful, good and true.

 

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • Martin Kelly

    I agree that Les Mis was a very powerful story.

    I also noted that the very name of the book\play\movie recalls the first Latin word of Psalm 51: Miserere, which is usually translated “Have mercy …”. Yet, its full translation entails the Les Mis story: the pitiable ones, or the miserable ones.

    One sore point with the play/movie is that the ending scene encourages Liberation theology, which Benedict XVI has thoroughly denounced.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      the final scene encourages liberation theology? You’re reading too much into it. You might just as easily say it exalts the beauty of heaven and the triumph of the Messiah who came to set the captives free.

      • Martin Kelly

        Father,

        I would agree wholeheartedly if the movie ended with Fantine singing Jean Valjean’s praises as he lives his dying days (next-to-last scene). But the ending scene uses the revolutionarys’ creation using many, many pieces of spent furniture of what I would describe as a bunker. This use of a worldly warpiece enforces the incorrect notion of an armed conflict necessary to bring about God’s justice. However, “My Kingdom is not of this world”. It is not their joyful singing at the end that’s the issue, it’s the “bunker” prop.

        But, if you still say I am reading too much into it, I will always defer to an “Alter Christus”.

        Thank you for listening (and correcting if necessary). May God be praised!

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          The beauty of a work of art is that it can rightly be interpreted many ways and one can see different truths within it.

        • Arnold

          The movie ends that way because the musical ends that way. It is the rousing finale. Notice also that Javert is not among those on the barricades. I especially love the fact that the film shows Valjean dying in a convent and his soul walking toward the bishop who is welcoming him with open arms at the entrance to the sanctuary of the chapel. That was not included in any production I saw of the musical and the place of death appeared to be a home. It made the scene for me much more powerful and moving. Another nice touch is the mixing of the nuns’ chant in the chapel with Valjean’s music as he seeks refuge in the convent with the child.

  • Janet

    I saw this on Sunday and was moved to the point of almost sobbing during a few scenes. At the end I was not alone, many people with tears falling, including my 16 year old daughter. And it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen where the audience applauded at the end. Such a beautiful depiction of Christ’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. I’m recommending it to everyone I can! Thank you for writing about it!

  • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

    Haven’t seen the film yet but I have seen the show twice — the first time reluctantly, because like you I didn’t think it could be all that good. HA! I find that what’s so powerful about it is a general Catholic sensibility, rather than anything specific, and it’s even more interesting because Victor Hugo was hardly a devout Catholic!!! But he had the sensibility, the overall way of thinking, that is Catholic even if he (like many people) wasn’t so enchanted by the actual Catholics of his day. I hope that means he will receive God’s mercy, because he was no saint.

    BTW my father told me one of the reasons he left the Church was that the book was on the Index and Catholics weren’t supposed to read it. He thought that was just stupid. According to him, it was because the bishop lied .

  • veritas

    I totally agree with the comments made.

    I agree with Martin that the film did portray the traditional anti ruling class, up with the revolutionaries theme of today’s left – and for that I was disappointed.

    However, overiding that was the powerful Christian theme of repentance and forgiveness, which I have rarely seen so clearly presented in any film or play.

    My son also made an intersting comment. He said he was pleased at last to see someone show just how horrible prostitution is, the reality of it. Many in today’s world have tried to argue that prostituion is merely another job, a victimless activity. The film depicts it for all the grotiness it is.

    And how amazing is it for any film in the last 50 years to show a Catholic bishop in a positive light!

    I too was effected by Javert’s complete inability to accept the forgiveness shown him by Valjean.

    A Christian priest once related an incident in which he was at an inter faith ecumenical meeting of clergy and he made the comment that God was his father. The Muslim cleric got really angry and stated firmly, “God is definitely NOT my father!”

    This really struck me. How horrible to have no concept of God as a loving father.

    Les Miserables reminds us of the love and mercy of God and our need of repentance and acceptance of that mercy.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I thought the film was balanced in it’s portrayal of the class struggle as the young revolutionary was welcomed back into a loving and kind upper class family. They avoided the easy solution of portraying all aristocrats as villains.

      • Martin Kelly

        The re-acceptance of Marius by his grandfather is similar to the Prodigal Son’s re-acceptance by the “Prodigal Father”. It is what Javert could not understand nor accept, that the Victory of Justice (1st Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah) is Mercy (4th Suffering Servant Song).

    • B. Durbin

      When Anne Hathaway was rehearsing for her role, she looked up the testimony of victims of sex trafficking. She said that she had always seen the plight of Fantine as something in the past, but once she’d read what those women were going through today, and the laments of “I was a nice kid; how could this happen to me?” she knew that she had to connect her portrayal to the things that are still going on today, and that she couldn’t hold back.

  • AnneG

    I read Les Miserables in college decades ago and I could only remember the pain. I absolutely abhor the French Revolution as the worst possible solution. I missed all the redemption you talk about. I may have to see the movie based on your recommendation. Thanks, Father.

  • Charles G

    I just loved the heavenly barricades at the end. Far from promoting “liberation theology”, in my mind it turns right on its head the whole notion that Christianity can be reduced to “social justice” in the here and now. The whole transcendental dimension of Christianity is missed.

  • http://themanwhowouldbeknight.blogspot.com Ryan Kraeger

    I agree. It was an amazing movie, and deeply and profoundly Catholic throughout. It was an example of Catholic Art, art that is art, and good art (except for Hugh Jackman’s singing), not a sermon. It works through the actors, despite their shortcomings and imperfections, despite, or perhaps because of, their personal beliefs, both true and erroneous. The end result is great beauty and truth.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I got used to the less than professional singing. It made the characters seem more real.

      • Arnold

        I agree with your point, Father. I felt that too. It wasn’t as ‘theatrical’ as a stage version has to be.

  • David Naas

    Ah, but then — is Javert Evil?
    Evil has been defined (by some) as the absence of the Good. Moreover, it has been declared (by some) that Evil cannot abide the presence of the Good. So, when Javert cannot abide the no-longer-avoidable recognition of the Goodness in Valjean, he self-destructs.
    When he (Javert) sings of his own righteousness , to the Stars, is he making a gesture toward the Pagan Dieties of Justice and Order that he worships? Is this the fate of all (in the last accounting) who cannot abide — in themselves or in others — the entirely unmerited Mercy of God? And, most importantly, who are we being at any given moment, Valjean or Javert?

  • Niall

    Father, this isn’t a facetious question, but one that genuinely puzzles me in terms of moral theology.
    Did the Bishop of Digne sin in lying to the police about the theft of the silver? It seems instinctively that he did the right thing, but I’m still trying to get my head around why this is so.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I didn’t notice that he lied.

      • Arizona Mike

        He didn’t lie – he did give the silver to him.

  • Gilbert Cunanan

    Here’s something interesting about Victor Hugo. From Wikipedia, “After that point, Hugo never lost his antipathy towards the Catholic Church, due largely to what he saw as the Church’s indifference to the plight of the working class under the oppression of the monarchy; and perhaps also due to the frequency with which Hugo’s work appeared on the Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Hugo counted 740 attacks on Les Misérables in the Catholic press). On the deaths of his sons Charles and François-Victor, he insisted that they be buried without a crucifix or priest, and in his will made the same stipulation about his own death and funeral. However, although Hugo believed Catholic dogma to be outdated and dying, he never directly attacked the actual doctrines of the Church.”

    Of course, the musical itself has it’s own text and only takes the novel’s plot.

  • http://patrickcoffin.net Patrick Coffin

    And due to some charismatic something-or-other, I was able to understand ALL THE FRENCH in this movie. Zut alors! On a noto serioso, Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” is the greatest three-hour ad for the Catholic faith I’ve ever seen. Not surprisingly, the Academy snubbed Hooper: no Best Director nomination for this august, magnificent $100,000,000 budget epic. And they nominated a miserable European arteeste named Michael Haneke for his tender ode to euthanasia, “Amour” — a box-office dud.

    • Kristin

      LOL, your comment about the French made me laugh!

      I agree about the “greatest three-hour ad for the Catholic faith”. I was going through an agnostic/wanting to re-consider Christianity phase, and seeing Les Mis cinched it for me. I started attending Mass the Sunday after, and have been for the past month since. What I love is how Valjean manages to remember how much grace he has been given, always, and can only sing his praises and love of God for his salvation and love. I would love to emulate that.

  • http://www.simplicityandpurity.blogspot.com Julie

    I was touched by the story, again, when I saw it in the theatre. I’m in Asia and the theatre was nearly empty. Wish there had been more people there to be introduced to this marvelous story of joy and grief, law and grace, life and death. A fairly proportionate sampling of the human experience, I thought. Thanks for this post.


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