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Posts Tagged ‘Les Misérables’

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…

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…Fantine weeping for her lost innocence…

Javert…Javert seeking justice…

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…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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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The curtain opens on Paris in 1832, at which time the June Rebellion is underway.  “The People,” or representatives of the poor and downtrodden masses, are rising up against the French monarchy.

Any history buffs out there?  If so, does anything strike you as ironic about this?

Between the French Revolution of the earlier century and this time period, there had been a number of other such uprisings, all of which resulted in new monarchies and/or dictatorships that, at best, disappointed the hopes of the French people.

GavrocheWe are apprised of this in “Les Misérables” through the wisdom of a child — Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) by name.

Fighting on the side of the rebellion and reflecting on the People’s “victory” in France’s last great uprising (namely, the July Rebellion), he observes, “we tried to change the world too fast.”

Indeed, when we try to change things ourselves, on our own clock, when in our zeal we either presume to separate ourselves from our reliance on a Higher Power or assume that His will is 100% in conformity with our current temporal ends, then what we think is an accomplishment toward great change is just another case of egoistic self-assertion after the pattern of the Fall.

And what comes out of this?  Defensiveness.  Wall-building.  Denigration of the other.

June Revolution

What Gavroche doesn’t seem to realize is that the current rebellion poses the exact same problem.  The righteous indignation of the peasants against corrupt power structures is, in a sense, “ruined” by the mode of their rebellion.

Javert

In the rebellion by which they intend to “build a better world when tomorrow comes” and the oppressive monarchical side — embodied by the character Javert (Russell Crowe) — we have two self-defensive “egos” colliding.

It’s like a phenomenon we can observe any day in nature: When we strike two rocks against each other, flames are sparked.

Perhaps this is why, contrary to the expectation of the rebels, the people of Paris do not show up to help them on the day of battle.  Perhaps this is because they understand that it will not change anything, and in fact will probably just replace the old set of problems with a whole new set.

Yes, rebellion is sometimes necessary.  And yes, we should always do what we can to ensure that our societies respect the inviolable dignity of every human person.

But hope can be compromised when we try to do too much too quickly, when we invest too much hope in the idea of building the ideal society here and now…of relying on our own strength and zeal to reverse the sad condition of the world in which we live (as some of the revolutions of twentieth-century Europe have shown).

But enough of that.  What kind of actions do make a real difference, at least in “Les Misérables?”  We’ll get to that next time.

Images obtained through a Google image search

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Again, having seen “Les Misérables” is not mandatory.  We are here dealing with a theme, not plot points.

Ok, we’ve had a break.  Now let’s get back into it.

We’d be remiss if we concluded that the Grace/Law issue is the only great theme that shines through “Les Misérables.”  In fact, I think even that falls under a wider umbrella — namely, hope.

We can say that hope is upheld by the change that Grace allows and legalism prohibits.  But on another level, hope is the “food” of the human race.

I can borrow no better words than those of motivational speaker Matthew Kelly, who has commented on the difference made by people “who believed that the future could be bigger than the past.”*

“Les Misérables” bears witness to hope, but it is also a cautionary tale.  We have to remember that hope transcends us, and must be patiently awaited until it is ready to meet us on its own terms.

Humility is mandatory.  Look at it this way: If we think of the progression of time and history as a straight line, we can infer that it is set against a larger background (eternity), and headed toward a final end (heaven).

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As a progression, it has a length, but no width.  No two points in time can exist side by side.

Now, imagine trying to give it width.  Mentally attempt to grab the middle of a line by its “edges” and stretch it out like so…

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You have some more width — or something vaguely like it — but what does this “stretching” do to the rest of the line?  It pulls it back in both directions.

I think utopianism and triumphalistic ambitions toward hope do the same thing to us as human beings.

When we invest our hopes in this world, we forget where we came from and where we’re going.  The great progression of history becomes no longer a line, but a mess…like a blob of jelly spread out over the face of eternity.

Again, humility is mandatory in order for hope to be truly hope.  As with Grace, we must acknowledge our dependence on something higher than ourselves.

More than that, we have to acknowledge the fact that our destiny, our fulfillment, our hope lies in something that is beyond our powers — and beyond this world.

And now the curtain opens…we’re ready for Act II!

* Here is a link to one of at least two videos in which Kelly says this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcM7S7Y7r0A

Top photo obtained through a Google image search; others courtesy of Yours Truly.

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Les-miserables-movie-poster1Note: You do not need to have seen “Les Misérables” in order to appreciate this post.  It is simply a reflection on one of the film’s themes and contains no spoilers.

So we close the curtain on Jean Valjean and Fantine.  Now that we have a bit of a break, we can get down to a bare bones question: Which is harder, Law or Grace?

(As long as we remember that Grace and the Law are not opposed, as well as the difference between the Law’s proper place and its abuse, I think the following points are valid)

Grace is less scrupulous than the Law.  The ancient Jews had a daunting number of commandments in the Torah, and each had to be observed with exactness.  And lest you think to yourself, “Hey, you’re gonna miss something here and there — it’s understandable,” understand that the whole Law is, in fact, one “piece.”

That’s not to say that all failures to observe the Law necessarily carry equal weight — but when the Law becomes the end-all-and-be-all of our spiritual lives, it can get overwhelming.

Grace takes account of human weakness and can even work with human failures.

But in another sense, Grace is much harder.  While perhaps emphasis on Law can be content with mere outward observance, Grace demands an overhaul of the heart.  In response to Grace, we are now responsible not only for performing the right action, but also for developing the right motives.

Colm Wilkinson 2That is why the Bishop’s forgiveness of and charity towards Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” is such a great illustration of “turning the other cheek,” which Christ prescribes in Luke’s Gospel.

“Turning the other cheek” does not mean being a doormat, nor does it mean excusing, minimizing, or ignoring the wrongs committed by another.  Rather, it is a method of nonviolent confrontation — it causes no harm, but it lets the other see the wrongness of his/her ways.

After the episode with the Bishop, Vajean cannot comfortably return to his former course of action (which we may suppose to be a life of vengeance against the society that has disenfranchised him).  He has been confronted with something bigger than himself, something that compels him to go out of himself.

That something is Grace, pure and simple.

Top photo from Wikipedia; photo of the Bishop obtained through a Google image search

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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.

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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”

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