March 8, 2013

Academy Award-winning movie depicts various faith elements

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway star in a scene from Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the long-running stage show. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Universal Studios)

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway star in a scene from Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the long-running stage show. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Universal Studios)

By Sean Gallagher

The motion picture Les Miserables took home three Academy Awards on Feb. 28.

But long before the red carpet was rolled out in Hollywood, Les Miserables had already won the hearts of many Catholic viewers for the way the faith was imbued in the film’s story.

The movie was an adaptation of the 1985 musical of the same title. It, in turn, was based on the 1862 novel by French author Victor Hugo.

It tells the story of how ex-convict Jean Valjean, played in the film by actor Hugh Jackman, is lifted out of despair by a single act of charity by a Catholic bishop. Valjean changes his life and helps many people.

At the same time, Inspector Javert, a French policeman, hunts Valjean down over the decades because he believes that men, once they turn to crime, are unredeemable. Actor Russell Crowe played Javert in the movie.

Four Catholics who have valued the story of Les Miserables over the years recently spoke about the award-winning motion picture adaptation, and how it, at times, both highlights and short-changes the Catholic faith.

‘The conversion element’

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, vicar general, has read the novel several times and seen the stage production and movie version of Les Miserables.

He said he would “highly recommend” the movie only to audiences over the age of 14, especially because of a particular scene that was “very bawdy and somewhat offensive.”

Bishop Coyne was impressed, though, by the portrayal near the start of the film of the bishop. He thought the portrayal of the prelate was by far the most positive depiction of a Catholic clergyman in a mainstream film in years.

Despite his kind treatment by the bishop, Valjean steals his only possession of any value—his silverware. Policemen who catch Valjean and bring him to the bishop tell the cleric that Valjean had said the bishop had given him the silverware.

The bishop, trying to help Valjean, confirms his story and gives him his precious silver candlesticks. After the police leave, he tells Valjean that he has “saved his soul for God,” and to use the silver to become a better man.

Valjean is shaken to his core, takes the bishop’s advice and seeks to live a life of virtue.

Although the bishop is on the screen for a relatively short time, he plays a key role in the rest of the story of Les Miserables.

“He’s the conversion element,” said Bishop Coyne. “The story of Jean Valjean doesn’t move forward without somebody convincing him of his humanity, and the fact that he is beloved of God even in his wretchedness, that there is goodness in him, that there’s a potentiality to turn his life around in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Although the story of Les Miserables later focuses on a student uprising in Paris that seeks to overturn the government, Benedictine Father Denis Robinson thinks Hugo in his novel offers readers a different vision of revolution through the bishop’s charity.

“Sometimes a small gesture at the right moment can create an entirely new world,” said Father Denis, president rector of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. “I think an entirely new world was created for Jean Valjean and for all of those whose lives he touched because of this one act of charity.

“To me, that’s Hugo’s real emphasis—a single good deed can change the world. I think that’s the revolution that is much more powerful than even what we see toward the end of the novel or the play or the film.”

Seeing love and mercy

In addition to this key element of the plot that finds its roots in the Catholic faith, the film also visually brought forward faith elements.

Ann Lewis, who teaches composition and literature at Lumen Christi High School in Indianapolis and is treasurer and past president of the Catholic Writers Guild, thought the scene of Valjean’s conversion was strengthened by visual elements.

“You have a beautiful chapel, and he’s talking to God there,” said Lewis, a member of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis. “You could see that it was a genuine spiritual conversion. There was a Catholic ambiance to the film … ”

Lewis watched the pivotal relationship between the bishop and Valjean, and hoped other viewers realized that “what changed [Valjean] was the mercy and love of a man who really did live his faith.

“I hope that they’ll realize that this is what people of faith are meant to be,” Lewis said. “This is what the Church teaches.”

At the same time, Father Denis cautions against overplaying the Catholic aspects of the film because, after the scene with the bishop near the movie’s opening, the Church plays no meaningful role in the rest of the story.

“We kind of have to be careful that we don’t idealize this almost kind of quietism,” Father Denis said, “of how I can take on the values of the Church, but I don’t have to have any resort to the life of the Church in a formal sense.”

Father Denis said the fading of the Church from view in the story of Les Miserables reflects the views of Hugo, who was “certainly someone who valued the values of Christianity, but did not see the importance of the Church.

“The Church is so desperate sometimes for positive images of Christianity, and the positive effect of Christianity to be portrayed in film that it may latch on to something that, while it is positive, by the same token could ultimately have some problems as well,” Father Denis said. “If Les Miserables is used as a vehicle for expressing the new evangelization, what is ultimately the image of the Church that it will express?”

Law and grace

Father Denis still praises the film for the way in which it portrays Valjean’s conversion and its ongoing effects, which is highlighted in contrast by the character of Inspector Javert.

So does Steven Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register and a deacon candidate for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.

In Valjean and Javert being set against each other, he sees a kind of debate displayed in the writings of St. Paul about whether salvation is gained through the grace of God or by adherence to the law.

“You can almost say that Javert represents a kind of … rigor in which any violation of the law is the same as violating the whole of the law, and it renders you guilty forever and beyond redemption,” Greydanus said. “There can be some measure of restitution, maybe. But you’re never going to be really right again.”

Greydanus said this view of the law by Javert affected his perspective on other people.

“It’s emphasized in the lyrics from the very first line when the prisoners exhort one another to look down and don’t look him in the eye,” he said. “Javert has really placed himself in the position of God.”

Javert’s worldview comes crashing down, however, when Valjean has a chance to kill him, but spares his life. He later has a chance to arrest Valjean, but lets him go. Not comprehending how, in his mind, an unredeemable criminal can act with mercy, Javert kills himself by jumping off of a bridge into the Seine River in Paris.

“I think that’s a point that Hugo wants to keep bringing out,” Father Denis said. “People change. And it’s the nature of people to change. It’s Jean Valjean’s nature to change.

“But it’s not Javert’s nature to change. And [in the face of] his inability to change when he does do something outside of strict justice, he can’t survive.”

Seeing the face of God

The portrayal in the movie of Valjean’s death, which comes at the end of the story, highlights for Bishop Coyne another aspect of its Catholic nature. Although Valjean had done great good throughout his life, he was only assured of his salvation at the very end.

After he dies, the viewer sees, in a sense, his soul leave his body and sing arguably the musical’s most famous line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

“[Salvation] is measured by the life that one has led,” Bishop Coyne said. “It’s not a present reality in this world, but one that is only attained at the end through the mercy of God and God’s judgment.”

Greydanus was impressed by the fact that the film focused on salvation at all.

“That’s not so common [in movies],” he said. “That’s one of the things that makes this production unique. And it does present Valjean’s epiphany as representing a higher perspective. … It’s not just a matter of human experience that to love another person is to see the face of God. The face of God is in view here.” †

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