Les Miserables: A Catholic Story

les-mis-boxVictor Hugo, whose sprawling novel is the basis of the theatrical and film smash musical Les Misérables, wasn’t exactly a good Catholic. But his soul was Catholic through and through, and so is“Les Mis,” a film that gives the restless human heart just what it wants: assurance that in a cruel world, love is the key to redemption.

It’s that message, not just the riveting story, tour de force score, and succession of one dazzling vocal performance after the other, that made the stage play a hit. And it’s that message, not just the Oscar-winning performance by Anne Hathaway and equally stellar performances from the rest of the cast, that made the movie a blockbuster.

It’s hard to imagine a more Catholic story than Les Mis, and when films like Bridesmaids and Saw IV rake in millions, it’s more than a little astonishing that the production exists at all.

First, the story:

“Les Misérables” might best be translated into English as “the wretched people.” Hugo’s story is set among the wretched people of 19th-century France: criminals, prostitutes, thieves, and others whose grinding poverty makes them vulnerable to being stirred up to armed revolts, especially in the teeming city of Paris. Can there be anything but misery for such people? Is faith, love, and salvation possible?

The story begins when Jean Valjean, sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his nephew and to another 14 years for trying to escape, finally ends his time doing slave labor. A pitiless policeman named Javert gives him his parole papers and tells Valjean that he will never be anything but a violent criminal, and that he will watch him forever.

Embittered and enraged at the world, Valjean cannot find work. There are too many people for the meanest jobs, and no one will hire a criminal. Starving and furious, he hides in a church one night and is found by a bishop, who offers him food, a bed, and kindness. After the bishop and his housekeepers go to bed, the desperate Valjean makes off with a sack full of silver dishes, only to be caught by the local police.

The surprising response by the wronged bishop gives Valjean not just another chance at freedom, but another chance at life. He must choose to take or reject it. It is just the first of many harrowing moments in a production that makes no bones about it: The freedom offered by Christ is a freedom that means obligations, and you must choose it without knowing what those obligations will be. Valjean is elated and terrified; he realizes that to accept the forgiveness he is offered, he must give his whole life in return, and he must do so without any guarantees. A better life is possible, not promised. And he does not know how to be a better man.

Throughout Valjean’s adventures (and they truly earn the word “adventures”) his inner struggle to live for God while in constant danger from the implacable Javert are as agonizing to watch as is the suffering of the various people he meets along the way: a penniless unmarried mother driven to prostitution, an mistreated orphan child, idealistic young revolutionaries whose cause is noble but hopeless.

Next, the film:

In an industry that “remakes” beloved movies, films, and musicals by changing major characters, plot points, and entire endings, Les Mis is remarkably true to the stage show. There are changes, but amazingly (again, for the modern film industry) musical changes were made with the original composer and librettist, and most plot changes were additions from Victory Hugo’s novel.

Famously, director Tom Hooper chose to film all the singing live, rather than  having the actors lip-synch to what they’d recorded in a studio, with live musical accompaniment. The result has an immediacy that accomplishes in a cinematic way what the stage show does through what is often more powerful singing: it transfixes the audience. A great deal of the movie consists of long closeup shots of one or the other of the characters’ heads positioned to the right or left of the screen, but the emotion is so raw that it feels like watching non-stop action — so much so that I found the fighting scenes at the barrier, which in the stage show feel overwhelming, to seem oddly small in comparison.

Hathaway deserves her Oscar and Hugh Jackson is unforgettable as Jean Valjean, though it seems as if he’s trying for a “non-operatic” voice much of the time. Everyone else is perfect for their roles, and although much was made of Russell Crowe’s supposedly not looking comfortable and not sounding as good as the others, none of the people I watched the film with thought so. He brought something different to the screen than actors do to the stage role, and it worked.

Hugh Jackman as former convict Jean Valjean

Hugh Jackman as former convict Jean Valjean

Now, theology:

When I say it’s hard to think of a more Catholic story than Les Mis, I don’t mean that it’s anti-Protestant, but that Les Mis looks at life through a Catholic lens. For Catholics, the world reflects God and people experience God through the world and through other people. Christ is central to everything, but in a visceral way that is ultimately lived rather than declared. Catholic imagery is everywhere in the film, Valjean prays frequently, and help comes to Valjean through the Church, but there is no Bible reading or Bible verses are recited as one would find in a “Christian film.”

On the other hand, no one ever goes to Mass either. Instead, Valjean lives out the central mysteries of the Christian life: Who is my neighbor? What must I do to be saved? How many times must I forgive? And perhaps most of all, the words of the prayer we have from Christ: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

It may be tempting for some to think of the policeman Javert as a “bad” Protestant to Valjean’s “good” Catholic, but that would be missing the point. Whether he’s a Protestant or a Jansenist (Jansenism was a sort of “Calvinism for Catholics,” popular in France), Javert represents an understanding of Christianity that mistakes rules for righteousness, that knows Law but not mercy, that trusts in the self rather than in God. Javert is not a monster, he is a man of honor who does his duty, tries to serve God, and gives no one more or less than he is due. Finally moved to mercy after he receives it from Valjean, Javert can’t do what Valjean did and change his life. He cannot live with receiving mercy he does not deserve, and the essence of Christianity is that God’s mercy is poured out for love. No one deserves it.

Finally, the finale:

The finale of Les Mis is one of the most affecting endings in literature, stage, or film. If you believe you will not weep, you’re wrong.

SPOILER: Unlike any happy ending you’ve ever seen, Valjean’s ending is happy because he is going to Heaven. He commends his adopted daughter and her new husband to God, and he sees them one last time his life is complete. The love he has for them is ultimately more important than anything he has gained or lost. In loving his daughter he learned to love God, and that love transformed him to be like Christ, capable of mercy and sacrifice Through the powerful vehicle of music, the stage show and fllm are able to make the reality of what salvation is — something too great and mysterious for words — touch the heart. Valjean’s sufferings have been  terrible; all suffering is terrible. We are all “the wretched.” But God is greater than all suffering, and we are promised more than we can ever imagine
“when tomorrow comes.”

SPOILER: The people I saw the film with, who had never seen the stage show or read the book, thought the ending was fantastic. But unlike Toni Rossi, who wrote a review this week titled Why “Les Misérables” Has the Greatest Ending in Movie History, I think the ending of the musical is even better. In the stage show, Fantine (Anne Hathaway’s character) and Eponine (another character I did’t have space to mention) both come to lead Valjean to Heaven, dressed in white like angels. In the film, Fantine — with her hair still hacked off from when she had to sell it and wearing a ragged dress — comes by herself. Cooper added an appearance by the bishop, which is moving, but then has Valjean step into a church and out onto… the barricade, which is now enormous and covered with people waving French flags and singing with joy about eternal life.

The barricade creates a lovely shot but makes absolutely no sense. All the dead characters sing about beating their swords into plowshares and living in “the Garden of the Lord” while they are standing on the scene of what Hugo’s book and the show make very clear is a senseless waste of life — a misguided attempt to help people through war, when what is required is a change in the human heart. I found it jarring to think that the poor of Paris are to spend eternity standing on a barricade made of garbage. I recommend closing your eyes at that part, and imagining them somewhere else.

That said: It’s a one-minute scene. The movie is a marvelous piece of cinema, with unforgettable performances. Watch it.

Les Misérables is available as a DVD/Blu-ray combo with digital download at retailers and online.

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Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

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