Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jean Valjean’

les-miserables-dawnTom Hooper’s adaptation of “Les Misérables” ends with a re-gathering of all the characters — including those who have died — in some mysterious “new dawn” accompanied by the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

I have two things to say about this:

1) We notice that the song is reconfigured a bit from its performance earlier in the film, going from an anthem to an earthly utopia to a testament to man’s greater hope.

2) This moment is in some sense prefigured not only by the earlier performance of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” but also in the general use of music throughout the film.

We notice at various times that different characters in different physical locations are singing the same song, or else singing different songs with a very similar thematic structure…

lovers

…whether it is Marius and Cosette pining for one another…

rebels

…the rebels seeking a new order…

anne-hathaway-les-miserables

…Fantine weeping for her lost innocence…

Javert…Javert seeking justice…

Valjean_Prayer

…or Jean Valjean seeking redemption.

However different our circumstances in this world, however different our roles and goals, whatever our worldly destinies, and however different our paths through life, we are all ordered to the same destiny.  We are all meant to form the family of God eternally, to the crowning glory of the New Heavens and New Earth — or the summation of all things in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10).

This is God’s desire for all humanity. It is for this reason that He sent His only Begotten Son to become a man, like us human beings in all things except sin, to bear our sins in His own body, to die for us, and to restore our life by His Resurrection.

There are none left out of this destiny except those who are excluded by their own choice, by their refusal of God’s call to repentance and conversion.  In the case of “Les Misérables,” this includes Javert (see my post “Act II, Scene 2/3” — https://intothedance.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/les-miserables-dvd-review-act-ii-scene-23-the-small-stuff/) and Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, the devious innkeeping couple who use poverty as an excuse for behavior that is inimical to community.

On that Final Day, we will know all we need to know.  We will finally see how and in what ways our actions, our sufferings, our prayers, and our very presence in this world affected others.  We will learn why some had to suffer more than others.  We will see the whole of history and creation fulfilled, its meaning disclosed.  Made to share by grace in the very life of God, we “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of (God the) Father” (Matthew 13:43).

Until then, we must strive to help one another reach this sublime destiny.  As C.S. Lewis wrote in his book “The Weight of Glory”:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

Such is the song — the “dance,” if you will — of daily life.  So let us be people of hope, not despair; virtue, not vice; kindness, not cruelty; moderation, not self-indulgence; generosity, not possessiveness…

…Let us sing.

SUPPLEMENTAL VIDEO

In closing, here is a video that in some way bears witness to the higher hope I have touched on.  Most of you have probably already seen Minnesota teenager Zach Sobiech’s moving music video, which he made after learning that he had only months to live — nevertheless, here it is:

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

In our last segment we left off with an observation of detachment on the part of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Eponine (Samantha Barks).  Now let’s take a look at how their respective acts of detachment converge in the wedding of Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), and then move on from there.

les-mis-eponine-rain

On the one hand we have a lover whose love is unrequited…

Jean Valjean_Cosette

…and on the other an adoptive father reluctant to lose the only companion he has in life.

Both have come to the same realization: “They are not ours to claim.”

Brace yourself, for we are touching a deep vein of the story’s inner life that is necessary for a life both of Grace and transcendence: Detachment.

Colm Wilkinson

It all starts with the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson), who gives Valjean two of his candlesticks in addition to those of his possessions that Valjean had initially stolen.  In so doing, the Bishop is clearly a man of the Gospel:

If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well.  Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. (Matthew 5: 40-41)

The more detached we are from earthly things, the less we have to lose; the less we have to lose, the less our enemies can take from us, and the more we have to give.

Adam_Eve

The problem of attachment has haunted us since the Fall of Adam and Eve, which made the elevation of the ego and the subservient urge to to dominate people, things, and nature for ourselves normative for mankind — so much so that we tend not even to perceive anything wrong with it unless it gets violent.

We can think of it like a beautiful moth we are tempted to hold in our hands.  It’s great, but what happens when we hold it too tight?  It dies from suffocation.

But when we can let go of those persons and things we cling to inordinately, they have a way of then being able to take flight like the moth, to fulfill their true purpose toward the Kingdom of God.  And we, being unburdened by attachment, have the freedom and levity of heart to do the same ourselves.

Images obtained through a Google image search

Read Full Post »

I would, as a viewer, identify four things that make the most difference in the second half of “Les Misérables.”  And these are relatively little things, as opposed to the grand uprising that was the focus of the previous post.

les-mis-eponin-marius

1. Eponine (Samantha Barks) gives Marius — with whom she is in love — the note he was supposed to have received from Cosette — with whom he is in love — after hiding it.

http://www.yuyi.cc/zy/41549-1-1.html

2. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), fearing to lose his adopted daughter Cosette but knowing her love for Marius, saves the latter’s life in almost total anonymity.

Marius_Cosette

3. The love between Marius and Cosette, which culminates in a happy wedding.

les-miserables-movie-jean-valjean

4. The mercy of Valjean, who at one point has Javert (Russell Crowe) in his grasp but spares his life, even knowing full well that he will continue to hunt him.

It is in these very simple and seemingly mundane actions of rectifying one’s own mistake, risking life and limb for another with no one watching, the love between a man and a woman, and “turning the other cheek” that produce the greatest emotional effect and conduce most to the story’s happy ending.

I think we see our two great themes coming together at this point.  We talked about the futility of a merely this-worldly uprising against institutional oppression in the previous post, and of how the latter is embodied in the character of Javert.

Javert 2Ironically, his side of the coin — namely, the legalistic police state — is another form of the same error.  After all, it is based on the assumption that by force, one can bring about perfect conformity to morality here on earth.  So the problem it poses is an earthly-utopia/transcendent-hope issue is well as a Law/Grace issue.

By showing Grace toward Javert in a self-effacing way, Valjean actually does wind up successfully bucking the “system.”

Javert_SuicideJavert, unfortunately, commits suicide as a result of this.  Having been faced with an understanding of reality for which he has no frame of reference, he simply cannot handle it; and instead of repentance, he chooses despair.

But whatever the result, Valjean has, by way of an action that to all appearances should be judged of little importance, thrown a wrench into the clockwork.

Self-effacing actions, not self-asserting actions, are what effect real and needed change.  Eponine and Valjean succeed in surrendering their own desires/interests, and their respective acts of detachment converge in a wedding…

Next time.

Images obtained through a Google image search

Read Full Post »

TheatreIf it helps you, picture a bunch of stage hands switching things around in the dark.

From the counterproductivity of legalism we turn to an important question: How can we come to the defense of the sinner while at the same time condemning the sin?  The same question can be rephrased in reverse order: How can we express disapproval of the sin while behaving compassionately toward the sinner?

I think the answer lies in an understanding of what sin is and does.  Sin is like a prison.  It lures us with trappings of pleasure or satisfaction, and then when it gets a hold of us it binds us as with chains.

Jesus says as much:

Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)

Sin makes us less human.  It may feel good for a time — just as using drugs and alcohol is pleasurable to the addict or alcoholic — but ultimately it harms the very heart of the person who commits it.

anne-hathaway-les-miserablesWhile we do see something of this in Jean Valjean’s case, we see it more explicitly in the character of Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  She has been forced into prostitution in order to feed her child, and when she sings her song of lamentation, “I Dreamed a Dream,” it is perhaps the most moving and tragic scene in the film.

And how do people from the upper tiers of the social hierarchy and servants of the law treat her?  With pure contempt.

Javert 2In fact, at one point Javert almost has her arrested for striking a “gentleman” (an act of self-defense).  The idea that her action might have been justified, that perhaps the man she struck had been posing a threat to her, never occurs to him.  He knows nothing about her — only that she is a prostitute, and therefore not to be trusted.  In all likelihood, she was born bad.

To the extent that the law puts people down and obscures their dignity, it becomes a servant of sin rather than a safeguard against it (remember, the degradation of the human person is sin’s purpose and effect).  When we look down on people self-righteously, when we jump too quickly to judgment, what we end up doing is maintaining them in their sins (“They’ll never change”).

Don’t get me wrong — law is necessary and good.  Society’s judgments on legitimate wrongs are likewise good.  But in the words of Pope John Paul II,

Forgiveness … seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations.  No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil.  The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.*

No such “door” is open to Fantine, and so she loses faith in a benevolent God.

Jackman_HathawayAt this point, Valjean intervenes.  Having reformed his life and worked his way up to the position of mayor of the town in which Fantine lives, he discovers her in the gutter and lifts her out.

Caught_in_Adultery

One cannot help but be reminded of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  As this woman is faced with the prospect of being stoned to death, Jesus says this to her captors:

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)

Not to be redundant, but I do need to return to Blessed John Paul II, who comments on this passage in his Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem”:

In the end Jesus says to her: “Do not sin again“, but first he evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her (…) Jesus seems to say to the accusers: Is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your “male” injustice, your misdeeds? (italics his)

This seems to apply in Fantine’s case as well.  After all, for all Javert’s zeal for the enforcement of the law, does he ever give any hint of concern for the social conditions that contribute to the sins of folks living in the dregs of society? (It is worth noting that there is a reprise of “Look Down” in the mouths of peasants at one point in the film)

Unfortunately, Fantine dies shortly after Valjean’s intervention.  A life of abject poverty and prostitution has taken its toll on her.  But she dies knowing that she is loved, and therefore her hope in the triumph of truth, goodness, and beauty — and, we may suppose, God — is restored.

Cosette

She is also happy because she knows her daughter, Cosette, will be well cared for.  Valjean promises to see to that — in fact, he takes Cosette in and raises her himself.

Colm Wilkinson 2

Here, we see Valjean extending the “economy” of grace.  Having been shown mercy by the kindly old Bishop, he is inspired to live a life of grace, extending that mercy to others.

That’s the thing about the life of grace, which comes to us through Jesus Christ: It is a gift that is increased by being shared, the treasure that grows to the extent that it is given away.

What motivates this sort of “pay-it-forward” attitude for the Christian?  Gratitude, certainly.  But also, it gets us less focused on ourselves.  It neither permits us to indulge in sin nor maintains us in our guilt, but frees us to actualize our true selves.  And as I’ve said before, all human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, and so we only truly find ourselves when we make of our very selves a sincere gift to others.

Both sin and the pharisaical abuse of the law (itself a sin) get in the way of this.

*From the book “Go in Peace”

Read Full Post »

Les-miserables-movie-poster1

Notice: Some spoilers here

“Les Misérables” opens with the song “Look Down,” which is significant. The forces in this world opposed to the Will of God would always prefer to keep human beings looking down rather than up — that is, rather than looking toward hope. There are many ways of doing this, but in some way or other they all involve the wounding of the dignity that belongs to human beings.

Jean_ValjeanAs the film opens, we meet Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has been serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister’s starving child.

Valjean is finally paroled after nearly two decades, but he is a marked man. He must carry his convict’s papers with him wherever he goes so that everyone knows he is a “dangerous man.”

His first foray back into freedom takes him from town to town, and he is met wherever he goes with nothing but contempt — even to the point of being physically assaulted.

JavertOn top of that, he is being relentlessly pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), the Constable who is determined to put Valjean back behind bars…even years later, when he has reformed his life.

Before we go further, we must realize that the crime for which Valjean was imprisoned is not only understandable, but fully justifiable.  In fact, his action was in total accord with Catholic social teaching, which states that whenever there is a question of obtaining basic necessities such as food and drink, and there is no other means of doing so, one has a right to take from the abundance of another.  Why?  Because, in fact, the person in question has a right to this necessity in justice.

After his release, Valjean’s situation reverses. He has been embittered and hardened by the institutional and societal injustice he has suffered, and this leads him to do something that is actually wrong.

Colm WilkinsonHe is taken in one night by a kindly old Bishop (Colm Wilkinson), and then at night he steals valuable items from him and escapes.  The next day, he is caught and dragged back to the Bishop by police officers.

Then what happens?  The Bishop denounces him, right?

On the contrary, he tells the police officers that these stolen items were, in fact, gifts from him to Valjean.  Not only that, he then declares that the only mistake Valjean made was forgetting to take two beautiful candles, which he immediately bequeaths to him.

Colm Wilkinson 2Valjean is not only “off the hook,” but now has a variety of valuable goods at his disposal.  The Bishop sends him on his way, but informs him that he must use these gifts for his own genuine good, for the bettering of himself as a man.

hugh-jackman-les-miserables1Now, contrast Valjean’s response to the Javert style of justice (already noted above) with his response to the Bishop’s utterly gratuitous act of generosity.  Valjean is a changed man.  The rest of the film follows him as he “pays it forward” with remarkable acts of charity toward others.

My point in recounting these plot points is to illustrate an important principle: The law, while good and necessary in itself, must never defeat its own purpose.  To the extent that it puts people down, it loses its way and becomes mere legalism.

When legalism is privileged over more humane approaches, as we can see, it proves to be counterproductive.  I’ll talk more about that in relation to the characters of “Les Misérables” within the next several days.

Top photo from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search

Read Full Post »

Having commented on various films from the past year, I could not rest easy if I didn’t cover Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables.”

As you can probably tell from the title of this post, my commentary will be divied up into segments that resemble the playbill of a theatrical performance.  For today, we will delay our dive right into the movie for a prelude in which we immerse ourselves in one of the story’s major themes — or differently put, into some of its defining “music.”

The theme in question is the relationship between law and grace — particularly from a Biblical perspective.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther, the founding father of the Protestant Reformation, famously held that the Law and Grace were opposed.

Observance of the Law, in Luther’s mind, was somehow inherently slavish.  Grace and faith alone were the substance of the Christian life.  The purpose of the Law was simply to convince human beings of their own helplessness, of their total inability to save themselves.

And in this state of abject self-abasement, we are ready to receive the free grace of God.

A Catholic would agree and disagree.

On the one hand, we would agree wholeheartedly that the Law of itself cannot save.  It is like an X-ray in Israel’s (and human) history, showing to man the deep sickness of his sin.  It goes without saying that the X-ray and the cure are not the same thing.

But to say that this is the only purpose the Law could possibly serve is a bit short-sighted.  Yes, there are a great many aspects of the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament that were abolished with the coming of Christ, Who is the perfect fulfillment of the Law.  But the Divine Law, the Natural Law — which is, in fact, inscribed onto every human heart, even if it is obscured by sin — does not lose its value with the coming of Grace.  In fact, I think we could probably say that in a sense, the Law is a grace.

What Christianity is all about is not primarily rules and regulations, but a relationship:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22: 37-40)

However, the Law, rather than being a stricture, is the structuring logic of the relationship.  All stable families, for example, have ground rules, boundaries, and expectations, all of which are usually codified in a way that resembles “the Law.”

Romantic relationships are governed by a similar logic.  Typically, each partner expects the other to remain faithful to the other, to the exclusion of any other romantic relationships.  Both partners are at the same time expected to respect one another as unique persons, and to be willing to make compromises for the good of the other.

Baseball

Let’s turn to another scenario. Imagine a group of kids playing baseball.  Imagine putting them in the midst of about 40 acres of land and giving them a bat, a ball, and some gloves.  Then imagine telling them: “Okay, now just do whatever you want.”

I don’t know much about baseball, but I don’t think I need to in order to say that this just ain’t gonna work.

The fact is, kids who intend to play a game of baseball are going to want rules.  They want someone to lay out the physical boundaries of the playing field.  They want to know what makes for an “in” and what makes for an “out.”

They want, to sum up these points and everything else that could be said, to know how to win the game and how to lose it.  Otherwise, all the excitement goes out of the game.

I have written all of this not merely to give a full scale defense of the Law, but more specifically to show that the Law is the recipe for humankind at its best.  Many cultures throughout the centuries have expressed belief in a universal law that governs all things (some of the ancient Chinese, for example, spoke of the Tao).  To the extent that you were in conformity with this law, you were happy and virtuous … or, as contemporary writer and motivational speaker Matthew Kelly would say, “the best-version-of-yourself.”

Precisely because the Law is such a good thing in and of itself, its abuse is a tremendous evil. To the extent that it is used to put people down, to cripple them, to “freeze them up” with burdens they cannot bear, the Law has been hijacked and robbed of its true purpose.

We can prevent this by realizing that the Law — along with all laws, in the last analysis — is a means to an end, and that this end is nothing other than God, Who is love itself (1 John 4:8).  That is why, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, all human laws must be tempered with some sort of compassion, with what we might call a human element.

Otherwise, law defeats its own purpose.

That said, we can take a proper look at Grace.  Because of Original Sin, our hearts are not right; therefore, we cannot obey the Law as we ought, because our hearts are out of sync with the Law’s very purpose (that is why we sometimes use laws, which are derived from the Law, to oppress rather than to build up).  And if that’s the case, it only makes sense that we cannot turn to the Law for salvation.

Jesus Christ

In Christ Jesus, God, Who is infinitely, unconditionally loving and merciful, reaches down to us in friendship and offers redemption.  More than that, He offers us a share in His own Divine Life.  Undeserved, unearned, and totally gratuitous, it comes to us straight from eternity — the gift of Divine Grace.

With Grace comes a superabundance of aid by which we can, however imperfectly and however gradually, live by the Law given us by our loving Creator.  As long as we are doing the best we can and continually to striving for perfection, the Grace of God will be with us the whole way.  And if we fall, He is always ready to pick us back up.

On that concluding “note,” the Overture ends, and the curtain opens…

Photos from Wikipedia

Read Full Post »