Sunday, January 11, 2015

Resurrection Stories from "Les Misérables," or, I'm Starting the Year with a Movie Review

So now that I've finished my first post of the year and announced that I'm reinvigorating the tone of my blog, it is time for something completely different: I'm going back to movie reviews!

Yes, yes, I'm going to review Les Misérables, even though it's nothing of a new premier. My wife and I sat down and re-watched it recently. I've always liked the 2012 movie (as well as the 10th and 25th Anniversary concerts), but the more I stay with the story and experience it, the more I realize it's got a lot to say about human suffering and redemption. It may be no surprise to some of you, dear readers; you may be way ahead of me on this one. But for me, it's the title itself; sometimes it's translated from French as The Miserable Ones, and sometimes it's published as The Victims or The Dispossessed, so these ideas of human suffering may be no surprise. But nonetheless, I want to write about the theme of redemption in the story because the process of discovery has been so profound for me.

Let me start off by admitting my bias: the first time that I watched the movie, I immediately focused on the motives of each character. I found that much more interesting than the religiosity of the film. In fact, the most overtly religious character of the story, Javert, seems to give that stereotypical negative impression of a religious person. Beyond that, the religious themes of the movie seemed almost obligatory to me; almost as if any movie set in 19th century France has to involve the Church in one form or another. I have to laugh at myself as I write this because, of all people, I wouldn't expect myself to be so dismissive of a religious theme. But nonetheless, As I have been reflecting on the movie recently, I have been recognizing more and more the themes of redemption and what it means to bear with someone in their own suffering.

So to be clear, what am I referring to when I keep using this term "redemption?" Well, what I'm thinking of is a process of transformation. It's usually a changing of heart in some way; usually moving from a self-centered set of human interactions to more self-deprecating actions that place others at the center of interest. It really is a transformation and it can happen without or in the midst of human suffering. And almost without needing to say it, Les Mis tells a story of redemption completely in the midst of suffering.

For those of you unacquainted with the story, the musical version of Les Mis starts in a 1815 in a French prison where our protagonist, Jean Valjean, is receiving his parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was arrested and put there simply for stealing a loaf of bread to feed himself and his sister's child. And after these 19 years of hard labor, he is an angry, bitter man and his status as an ex-con does not win him many friends. The first 20 minutes or so of the movie go by pretty quickly, as it is made clear that no one he meets wants anything to do with him, whether it's to let him earn some money for a day's work, or whether it's to simply let him warm up next to the fire in an inn. However, he does finally receive hospitality from a bishop, who gives him food and a bed to sleep in. To which Valjean responds by promptly stealing all the church silver and running away.

Now, Valjean is not an incredibly sympathetic character at this point. He is still angry, bitter, disrespectful, desperate, starved, in pain and in rags. And nobody will show any mercy to relieve him. He is squarely in the midst of intense human suffering and I would contend that, blinded by his own pain, he has struck out against the bishop, his host, because there really is nothing that exists for Valjean outside his own condition. But it is at this, his lowest point, that his redemption comes to him. The bishop, rather than prosecute Valjean for stealing the silver, asserts that it was a gift when some police officers haul a battered and arrested Valjean back to the church. And in that interaction, Valjean experiences something that he has not seen for 19 years, if not longer: human compassion. And so the conditions are set for his own redemptive transformation. He becomes ashamed of what he has done. He acknowledges that he has been serving his own interests and sings about how he has never known anything but to "Take an eye for an eye/ turn your heart into stone."

Now I wish I had access to a different clip that features this song. The individual who posted this one did some video overlays and the lyrics, of course, were not on the screen in the theater. But you can still see the transformation that is taking hold of Valjean.

To weave another thread into this tapestry, let me ask you whether you knew that "redemption" or "redeeming" does not simply mean a purification of soul so that someone can go to heaven? I feel like the word has been abused for many years and come to have these connotations, which I'm sure have caused many people to feel very guilty for alleged crimes against God. Allegations like this, when a person does not believe they have done anything wrong, can cause a huge amount of resentment toward the accuser. And in a case like this, that accuser is most often the Church.

See, "redemption" has more to do with freeing a slave than it does with going to heaven. What you saw in the clip from Les Mis was Valjean's transformation from an angry man focused on his own pain, who was confined to a very narrow range of acceptable behavior by the people who had imprisoned him, into a man free to put others at the center of his focus. That's a deeply spiritual transformation, whether or not the Church has anything to do with it (I'm glad when the Church has something to do with it, but I know that she is also not the sole arbiter of redemptive transformation).

Les Mis really is a sweeping, epic story, so of course Valjean has a foil. That man's name is Inspector Javert. And where Valjean undergoes a transformation that changes all the motives in his life, Javert relentlessly pursues Valjean as a despicable criminal for the entire story. In that way, their foil is fascinating in terms of redemption, mercy and grace.

Javert was the man who informed Valjean that his parole was to begin. However, Javert is also the man who pursues Valjean after he breaks his parole. In doing that, Javert seems to be thrown into a cycle of merciless pursuit and persecution of Valjean. Often, throughout the movie, Javert says that this is the way to please the Lord. He is a deeply disturbing character, to be sure, but he is also a fascinating one. While Valjean has learned that true freedom can be found in the choice to come to the aid of others, Javert is really the prisoner of his own beliefs, since he can only understand a world where law-breaking is akin to doing evil and the person who commits a crime must be punished absolutely. Meanwhile, it is the duty of the righteous ones to make sure that that punishment is carried out. So indeed, there is a dramatic irony there, since Valjean, the former prisoner, is the one who is truly free while Javert, the law-enforcer is slave to his own beloved sense of justice.

I've already said that Valjean is redeemed and he has been resurrected to a new kind of life, but that really doesn't work with the way Javert sees the world. To Javert, mercy in the midst of someone's suffering is a sin (since any suffering a person experiences is punishment for any crime or sin that person committed). There are a few times in the movie when Valjean shows mercy to Javert; Valjean has the opportunity to kill him, and yet he doesn't, because that is not the way that Jean Valjean does things. And since he can't understand that kind of mercy, it is ultimately Javert's undoing.

Now that I'm realizing how much I've written about the circumstances and beliefs that tie these two men, Valjean and Javert, together so closely, I realize that I should probably try to say something about the suffering and redemption of other characters, as well. But even that is difficult without referring back to the two men who are in the story from beginning to end.

Fantine's suffering grows exponentially when the foreman at Valjean's factory throws her out. She turns to selling herself to support her daughter who is in the "care" of the Thénardiers, and she is ultimately redeemed by Valjean himself, even though he is really too late to keep her from dying. As Fantine passes away, Valjean promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Cosette is not really being cared for at the Thénardier's inn, but Valjean takes her away from that and raises her as his own daughter. Once we fast forward to the students who meet in the ABC Café and begin the June Rebellion (which was an uprising in Paris in 1832), Valjean and Javert are once again involved, Valjean as a volunteer and particular savior of Marius, while Javert is involved as a spy behind the students'  barricade.

All of these characters are examples of human suffering. And I would add that they're not all virtuous people suffering as victims of circumstance. Some of them (e.g. the Thénardiers, and to a certain extent Enjorlas, who leads the student revolution) suffer because they are imprisoned by their own beliefs, much like Javert. Some of them are redeemed because they are able to accept the grace and mercy offered by fellow humans, and some of them cease to exist in the story because their self-made prison cannot let the grace or mercy in.

At the end of the movie, we are left with those characters closest to Valjean who have been redeemed and transformed. All of them, in one part or another, thanks to Valjean himself. But in this last reprise of "Do You Hear The People Sing" that leads into the movie's finale, Valjean admits that he, himself, though redeemed and transformed, had not been completely changed until he felt love.

Those, of course, are my words. So watch this to see how it works in the musical.

I love this number at the end of this incredibly big story. I think it is truly a story of 'epic' proportion, and I do not use that word lightly. But let me return to the bias that I began this post with. Although I immediately latched onto the characters and the way that they drove the plot, I must admit that I rather quickly downplayed the religiosity of the movie. Why?

I think one of the things that has gone on in my life for so long is this idea that only good people can be in church and that transformation is a process that church has the corner on. This was an idea I only encountered when I was a teenager, and I have since dismissed it because I have so much evidence of the contrary. There are so many times in my life that I felt my suffering lifted and redeemed, if only slightly, so that I could keep going along, offering grace and mercy to everyone that I met. And none of those times of transformation happened in a church. Heck, I don't even think I know anybody who had a radical sense of transformation in a church building.

But that being said, the realization that Valjean makes at the very end of the movie, right at the end of the clip you just watched, I think that is an instance of the best of kind of church religiosity coming together with a person's own sense of self and belief. And the result is beautiful.

Since I write this blog from a pretty churchy perspective, I have to ask how we, as the Church, lift up redemption stories without requiring redemption because we are the Church. How do we set the stage for experiences of redemption and transformation, like Valjean's, but in real life, for real people? And how do we do that without presupposing that that kind of radical transformation requires the Church?

I think it requires an openness to grace and mercy and a willingness to keep a loose grip on our own belief system. But how that works precisely, I don't know. I do know that I will continue to look for examples of redemption that lead to resurrection and I will continue to write about them.

"Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!"

~ ~ ~

Do you know of any movies that present stories of redemption? Do you have a deep connection to stories that lead to resurrection? Please share one or a few in the comments below. Otherwise, you can join with me in conversation on Twitter or Facebook! Additionally, you can subscribe to my blog by email with the subscription bar in the navigation menu on the right-hand side of this page, and/or send me a friend request/follow me to make that social connection and participate in a deeper dialogue that way. Thanks!