The Film of the Year of Grace?
Review of Les Miserables by David Schütz
The new film of the stage musical Les Miserables opened in Australia after Christmas. In a recent interview with director Tom Hooper and star Hugh Jackman, EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo declared that “every priest, every bishop, should tell their people to see this movie”. Why would he say that? In what way is Les Miserables a Catholic movie? And what does it have to say to Australian Catholics during the Year of Grace?
The movie version of Les Miserables is an artistic work in its own right – it is neither Victor Hugo’s original novel, nor is it the stage musical. Even at 160 minutes, no movie could include every theme that Hugo included in his original work, but at the same time, the motion picture format offers far more possibility than a stage production. One big difference is the way in which cinema is able to bring the characters into clearer focus, conveying more detail than is possible on stage. The movie stars first class actors, and many of the songs are delivered with close-ups on the face of the singer, revealing the depth of their characters’ souls.
For this film is indeed a story about souls, about redemption and freedom, and about imprisonment and damnation. More obviously than in the stage musical, the events of the June Rebellion of 1832 take second place. The themes of liberty and revolution play a supportive role in relation to the main plot, which is the pursuit of the paroled convict Jean Valjean by the policeman Javert. While politics forms a backdrop, the real liberty which the film celebrates is the freedom that comes through spiritual redemption.
Alongside Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, another Australian actor, Russell Crowe, plays his nemesis Javert. On a simple, one dimensional level, we might look at Javert and dismiss him as a nineteenth century ‘Pharisee’ – more concerned with the letter of the law than with love. But Crowe acts out the role in a way that makes it hard for us to condemn Javert so flippantly. On the contrary, he attracts our sympathy. Yet he stands in stark contrast to Valjean: “There is nothing on earth that we share”, he sings, “it is either Valjean or Javert!” What makes these two men so different? Why (in the end) does Javert choose to commit suicide by jumping into the cold waters of the river Seine, whereas Valjean, at his death, is welcomed into paradise by Fantine and the old bishop?
The title “Les Miserables” is a clue. Commonly you will hear this translated simply as ‘the miserable ones’. But the Latin word ‘miserabilis’ (from which both English and French derive the word ‘miserable’)means ‘worthy of mercy’. Every character in this story – just like every human being in real life – is ‘worthy of mercy’: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cossette, even Javert himself. But how each one reacts to the possibility of mercy when it is offered determines the degree to which they can be liberated from their prisons – both real and spiritual. For when mercy is freely given and received, it takes on the power of life-changing grace.
We sympathise with Javert because he too is one of the “les miserables”. But we pity him precisely because he himself is incapable of either receiving or showing mercy. Grace – the power to change and to choose a better road – has no place in his world view; he simply cannot conceive of it. In his confrontation with Valjean he wrongly claims that “men like you can never change”, and then, with greater self insight, he adds”: “men like me can never change.”
It is this false conviction that leads him on the wrong path. In a moving, but ultimately terrifying, soliloquy, Javert walks upon a precipice while looking up toward the stars. These are his “sentinels, silent and sure”, “filling the darkness with order and light”, which know their “place in the sky” and can only “fall in flame”. He is confident that his way is “the way of the Lord” and that he follows “the path of the righteous”. But Javert’s idea of ‘righteousness’ is that of a force imposed by an external authority, as far beyond his personal encounter as the “sentinel stars” of which he sings. It is these stars by which he swears that he will capture and re-imprison the fugitive Valjean.
So what is he to do when he discovers that “the law” to which he has dedicated his whole life (“My duty’s to the law”) is a merciless tyrant? Javert’s world view is so fixed and unchangeable that it will not crack even when he personally and directly experiences true mercy from none other than Valjean himself. Now, standing on the precipice of the bridge before he finally leaps to his death, he looks to the stars again, only this time they are “black and cold”. There is no mercy to be found there. Javert kills himself because he cannot live in “the world of Jean Valjean”, a world in which grace has the power to change the course of a man’s life from within his heart. “The world I have known is lost in shadows,” he sings; it is “a world that cannot hold”.
In complete contrast we observe the transformation of Jean Valjean. Valjean is not a ‘better man’ than Javert – afterall, right at the start we see how he repays the kindness of the bishop by stealing all his silver. Like Javert, he also had lived his life according to the rule “take an eye for an eye!”. But here is the difference: when the bishop offers him mercy, he receives it, even though it cuts to his very heart. “Sweet Jesus, what have I done? Become a thief in the night…and have I fallen so far?” He experiences grace, and this grace effects a powerful change in his life. Having looked into “the whirlpool of [his] sin”, Valjean decides to “escape now from that world” so that “another story must begin”.
While receiving mercy is the beginning of grace for Jean Valjean, showing mercy to another is what leads ultimately to his complete transformation. He rescues Fantine, but too late to save her life; blaming himself for her death, he undertakes the care of her daughter, Cossette. At this point, having collected Cossette from the innkeeper and his wife, the movie adds a new song which was not in the stage production. He sings:
“Suddenly the world seems a different place. Somehow full of grace, full of light. How was I to know then so much hope was held inside me? What is past is gone now we journey on through the night. …Suddenly I see what I could not see. Something suddenly has begun.”
Unlike Javert, Valjean’s virtue is not imposed from outside. Grace – which is of course the grace of God – has worked the transformation starting with a change of heart. He lives a life of virtue which is his own inner strength rather than imposed from without, which leads to freedom rather than slavery.
There are many messages and themes in this film version of “Les Miserables” which can shape our Christian life, but this is the one that speaks loudest to me. There are two ways of living out the Christian faith – and like Javert and Valjean, they have nothing in common; they are mutually exclusive. Pope Benedict once wrote that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Javert was filled with lofty, ethical ideas, but Valjean had encountered God’s mercy in the old bishop, and later showed that same love to Cossette. And thus he found a new horizon, a new way of living and a new grace. As he sings in the last line before the final chorus: “to love another person is to see the face of God.”