Love vs. Law: A Lesson from Hollywood

From RPN, By Dana Sleger, 01/16/13 –

Image source: CreationSwap
Image source: CreationSwap

Fight. Dream. Hope. Love. These are a handful of the powerful thematic elements found in the film Les Misérables, but the message that impacted me the greatest was love. I grew up listening to my grandfather talk very fondly of his passion for literary classics, especially Victor Hugo’s 1862 fictional novel Les Misérables. Although I have yet to tackle this brilliant work in book form, I was elated when I found out Hollywood would be creating a film adaptation of the 28-year-old Broadway musical that has been viewed by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and presented in 21 different languages (3).

As I sat through the film, I wasn’t quite prepared for how it would affect me. I experienced a range of emotions as the main characters sang with words of conviction. Each one had a story to tell of “broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption — a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit” (4). When the film was over, the packed theater was silent and no one moved. Everyone sat quietly to honor the moment of reflection that was taking place. While the instrumental music played as the credits rolled across the screen, the sound of audience members emotionally moved by what they just witnessed during the 157-minute film was evident throughout the dark room. If tears had a sound, I heard it that day. The only other time I experienced that type of crowd reaction was after watching The Passion of the Christ in 2004.
The audience reaction to the film is a beautiful example of what happens when God and pop culture intersect, or better yet, when heaven invades earth. The powerful use of storytelling conveyed through the visual artistic medium of cinema allowed viewers to taste heaven and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). In God in the Movies, authors Bergesen and Greeley state:

God is in the movies more than we think. On the surface this seems odd because movies are more concerned with entertainment than religion. Movies are entertainment, of course, but . . . religion arises from hope-renewing experiences that are put in entertaining stories and are shared to elicit similar experiences in others. All forms of storytelling are potential avenues for religious expression. . . . Movies, then, are one of the most important media through which underlying social and religious beliefs are expressed (1).

So how did God show up in Les Mis? For those familiar with the musical, it is evident that the spiritual tones carried throughout the film are overtly full of compassion, mercy and grace. Although each character has a unique story, one of the most striking is the battle between love and law as displayed through ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Set in France in 1815, the film opens as Valjean has just been released from prison after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family. Although full of anger and bitterness due to being a victim of unfair circumstances and rebuffed by society because his past deems him a dangerous man, he encounters the kindness of a bishop who invites the outcast for a meal and a place to rest. However, after stealing silver from the church in the middle of the night, the police catch Valjean and bring him back to the bishop. In an unexpected act of mercy, the saintly figure tells the police he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. In addition, he adds two valuable silver candlesticks to the loot in front of the officers.

After the officers leave, Valjean is moved by the bishop’s heart when he sings: “And remember this, my brother / See in this some high plan / You must use this precious silver / To become an honest man / By the witness of the martyrs / By the passion and the blood / God has raised you out of darkness / I have bought your soul for God” (3). The grace bestowed upon Valjean compels him to become a better man by giving his heart to God and committing to a life bound by serving others with Christ-like love. But, because Valjean breaks parole to escape his past, Javert commits to a life of relentless pursuit of the ex-convict.

Though Javert also confesses to living a life of righteousness, it is motivated by a stringent adherence to the law, which blinds him to the act of grace and prevents him from believing people can be redeemed and change for the better. Javert sings: “There, out in the darkness / A fugitive running / Running from God / Fallen from grace / God be my witness I never shall yield / Till we come face to face / He knows his way in the dark / Mine is the way of the Lord / Those who follow the path of the righteous / Shall have their reward / And if they fall as Lucifer fell / The flame!” (3).

Toward the end of the film, Valjean has an opportunity to kill Javert, but instead, he bestows an act of grace upon his foe by letting him go free. Because the inspector is crippled with a mindset of self-righteousness and lives by the law, he cannot comprehend the selfless love he was shown and this unfortunately drives him to end his life. The battle between love and law serves as a good reminder that we have all fallen short of the glory of God, but by His grace through Jesus Christ, we are redeemed for a greater purpose (Romans 9:23, 24) — to reflect the genuine, selfless love of Christ to a world that so desperately needs to encounter the savior of mankind.
If you have not had the opportunity to see Les Mis yet, perhaps you might want to consider having an experience with God at your local theater. We all need to be reminded daily of the underserved grace we have been so generously given, but the wonderful thing about this award-winning film is that although theaters around the world are full of people just seeking to be entertained by this musical, they are actually tasting and seeing the goodness of God. In a media-saturated society, a cinematic narrative with a message of hope, love, grace and redemption can be just as powerful, if not more, than the same message delivered from a pulpit, and also has a significantly greater audience reach.
In this particular case, the thematic elements within Les Mis serve as powerful tools for moral contemplation. As Joseph Kupfer notes in Visions of Virtue in Popular Film, narratives are essential for moral thinking:

Stories are more than just one way among many for getting closer to comprehending human nature and virtue. Rather, artistic narratives, such as fiction films, mirror the form of people’s lives, or at least the form needed for us to find those lives meaningful. Stories can serve as paradigms not simply of moral exemplars but of imaginative constructs essential to moral inquiry (2).

One of the most powerful lines in Les Mis is, “To love another person is to see the face of God” (3). May we always remember the act of grace bestowed upon us through the blood that was shed on the cross, and may we always be compelled to respond with the same unconditional love as we encounter the faces of God in our daily lives.

Prayer Points

1) Pray that as audiences around the globe watch Les Mis in the theater and on soon-to-be released DVD, they will taste and see that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34:8) 2) Pray that those positioned on the mountains of media and arts/entertainment who have influence within the Hollywood sector would experience a download of Godly creativity for more film ideas that connect heaven and earth. 3) Pray the actors in the film, particularly Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, would be eternally transformed by the roles they played and significantly impacted by the message: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Works Cited

1) Bergesen, A.J and Greeley, A.M. God In the Movies. New Brunswick, CT: Transaction Publishers, 2000. 2) Kupfer, Joseph. Visions of Virtue In Popular Film. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999. 3) Les Misérables. Dir. Tom Hooper. Perf. Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried. Working Title Films, 2012. 4) Les Misérables. Working Title Films.

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