Les Misérables was wonderful. I had goosebumps from the first moment of glimpsing the grand French ship getting hauled into dry dock and they never seemed to go away for most of the movie, climaxing with the final scene of all the dead revolutionaries singing their rousing chant above a gigantic barricade. While I’m not naturally drawn to musicals and had never seen a production of this one before, it was still a deeply satisfying film, despite the tragic story.
What I couldn’t stop thinking about afterwards, though, was that this movie isn’t just a movie. It’s not only a nice, sad tearjerker of a story that I can wallow in for a few days before returning to my regular life; Les Misérables is reality in so many ways. There are many connections to the present day, lessons to be taken away and learned from. There are people suffering just as much as those young French men all around the world today, fighting for their own revolutions, for freedom, for the ability to feed their families. It’s easy to forget that in the West, because we fought our own bloody revolutions centuries earlier; yet, it’s happening now in the Middle East and North Africa and parts of Asia.
I was struck, too, by the love and forgiveness shown by the Catholic priest when Jean Valjean is caught stealing his silver. Rather than vindicating himself, which most people would feel like doing if someone they’d helped tried to rob them, he offered him the silver candlesticks. It was a stark lesson in forgiveness. It took only that one extra step of generosity and sincere belief in the potential goodness of Jean Valjean’s soul to turn his life around, and consequently that of so many others — Fantine, Cosette, and Marius, in particular. It was a beautiful ode to the principles of Catholicism at a time when so many of us doubt its integrity. I saw that scene shortly after reading an article on the L.A. church being forced by the Supreme Court to release the names of priests guilty of sexual abuse, after years of evading and protecting those men. The priest in Les Misérables, it seemed, was of a different calibre — one that would honour transparency at all costs.
Finally, the one-track attitude that inspector Javert has toward Jean Valjean is eerily similar to that of Canada’s current Conservative government and their rigid “tough on crime” laws: “Once a criminal, always a criminal,” with minimal consideration given to rehabilitation, restorative justice, and mental health support. Javert is inflexible, viewing people as black and white, followers of the law or breakers of the law, regardless of circumstances. As the film progresses, it quickly becomes obvious that his insistence on such a dichotomy is utterly ridiculous as we see what an honourable man Jean Valjean is.
Surprisingly, I didn’t weep my way through the movie, but rather finished it with an unsettled sensation in my gut. That’s a good thing. I’ll be adding Victor Hugo to my 2013 reading list.