“Les Mis” Christian Ideals Fitting for Easter

Brett Porter ’15, Contributing Writer

“Les Misérables” makes for a perfect Easter film. The protagonist, Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman), leads a life of sin and redemption. The opening scene features an exhausted, strained and bearded convict Jean Valjean who has spent nearly twenty years at hard prison labor. He presents his identification papers to Javert (played by Russell Crowe). Javert turns Valjean away in disgust. His papers are marked with a scarlet letter, labeling him a felon. His crime: stealing a loaf of bread for his destitute younger sister.

The bread’s religious significance sets an onerous tone in the opening scenes. It is only fitting that the village priest provides Valjean with food and shelter. But, Valjean inappropriately responds to the priest’s acts of kindness by stealing his silver. This holy man instructs Valjean to keep the silver and make an honest man of himself. Valjean lives up to the task. He transforms himself into a truly honorable, dignified and respected man. He becomes mayor of the town in which he has opened a factory. The city at the time ran rampant with disease and infection.

Chief lady misery is Fantine, played by Ann Hathaway. She dazzles in the role. Fantine’s descent into miserable oblivion begins when she loses her job. She has no husband and a young daughter to provide for. Fantine resorts to the most dehumanizing practices to feed her daughter. A woman in a dark alley chops off her long hair to sell to wealthy women for fashioning wigs. Wicked men in concealed streets pull her teeth to sell. The brutality can be difficult to stomach. Valjean encounters her in the street and temporarily provides aid. Fantine’s dubious occupations eventually lead her to develop a fatal disease. Fantine dies and Valjean adopts Cosette. She blossoms into the beautiful and generous young woman (played by Amanda Seyfried).

With Javert on his heels once again, Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris. His lost years have sensitized him to the needs of the city’s “Misérables.” The population had doubled between 1830 and 1860. The Paris in Victor Hugo’s novel of 1862 retains its eighteenth-century configuration, for Hugo had been in exile during the Second Empire’s reconfiguration of the city. Tunnel-like alleys lined with boarded-up, low-ceilinged tenements run in pairs on either side of the narrow cobblestoned streets. The practically overlapping roofs and block the sun from above. Water and debris float along.

The second part of the movie sounds the rallying cries of the French citizenry in their struggle for democracy in the Paris streets. It is in the street that Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary, Marius (played by Eddie Redmayne), a law student. He is equally as good-hearted and beautiful as she is.

Heavily religious messages so explicit in the opening scenes soften to accommodate the accentuation of the secular political events. Curiously enough, the transition from the overtly religious opening scenes to the secular concerns of the final scenes is seamless. Democracy and religious goodwill mutually accommodate one another.

This is Victor Hugo’s genius. Hugo’s hesitation in fully aligning himself with the revolution could be partially attributed to his belief in a higher power. The revolutionary guard associated Catholicism with the absolute monarchy. Hugo did not view religion and democracy as mutually exclusive like his contemporaries. Notre-Dame de Paris unveils Hugo’s struggle. He condemns the revolutionaries for their destruction of the marvelous Gothic cathedral. In particular, he expresses the most anger at their removal of the heads of the sculptures in the cathedral’s royal niches. Yet, Hugo floods the reader with Republican sentiment. He claims that the construction of the cathedral itself was a democratic effort. Each Frenchmen brought his own stone. Over time, these individual pieces of plaster comprised the majestic whole.

In Professor Beaudry’s French class, we read Victor Hugo. I asked her to share her opinions of “Les Mis.” I expected her to comment on the plot or the film. Instead, she provided me with a particularly enlightening response on Rousseau. Rousseau wrote that humans are naturally good. Our society and our conditions cause humans to act morally or immorally. The connection to “Les Mis”: Jean Valijean stole bread for his sister because French society abandoned his needs. Similarly, Fantine resorted to her work because she needed to feed her daughter. Fantine and Jean Valijean were not immoral people, but products of their environments. Hugo’s vision of an ideal democracy is conducive to Christian charity and goodwill. It is the perfect movie to watch during the Easter season.