Friday, December 28, 2012

“Les Miz”: How Religious Does a Movie Have to Be to Be Considered a Religious Movie?

For several days Marian had been telling me I had to see Les Miz the Movie. Of course, I resisted. I felt as though Les Miserables the Phenomenon had been going on just outside my peripheral vision since childhood, and I was already tired of it without ever having seen it.

God, was I wrong!

There are so many surprises here, even if you think you know what the story is about. (My mother, with whom I saw it, thought it was about 1789. I thought it was about 1848. Both wrong!)

Surprises like, for example, Ann Hathaway’s amazing performance as Fantine, the poor mother turned prostitute (pictured). Watch her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” and then realize, as I did, that it was shot all in one take. Then watch it again.

But what surprised me most of all about Les Miz the Movie was how religious it is—though whether this fact will be acknowledged by anyone outside the religious media is a question that hangs in my brain. Is Les Miz a religious movie?

Having just read a book about Anti-Catholicism in America, I am braced for any and all Catholic images in film being targets of fun and ridicule and calumny. Here in Les Miz the Movie, instead, Catholic characters are presented from beginning to end absolutely without irony.

This is a grace.

Perhaps all of you hardened Les Miz watchers knew this, but I didn’t.

— Jean Valjean doesn’t become the hero of his own story but for the forgiveness of a Catholic priest, who lets him get away with stealing the silver.

— Fantine does not survive peacefully without the ministrations of a nursing sister in full flying-nun habit.

— Jean and Cosette find refuge in a convent where sisters in similar winged wimples are seen saying the night office.

— And the saving priest and a heavenly Fantine all reemerge and converge at the end to bless Jean’s passage, as it certainly is, into heaven.

All this is remarkable. And worthy of praise.

Of course, the movie leaves us, as it must, with the great (triumphant?) (ironic?) image of the people singing on the barricades—that soaring Les Miz anthem in grand reprise about angry men and so on. But what the movie left in my heart was the quiet, redeeming image of Jean and Fantine reunited in death as they never were in life.

And this realization: No, there was absolutely no irony here. Not even a whiff.

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