by Father Robert Lauder
RUN, DON’T WALK, to a theatre showing the new film Les Miserables. It is probably one of the most Catholic films ever made.
Every so often in the Catholic press, there is an essay about what makes a film “Catholic.” In trying to focus in on just what the necessary ingredients are to make a film deserve the description “Catholic,” authors often point to some very popular films of the 1930s and ’40s in which priests were depicted by actors such as Pat O’Brien, Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy.
They might also refer to biblical spectacles such as The Robe or Quo Vadis. There are very serious and dramatic “Catholic films,” such as A Man For All Seasons, and lighter fare, such as Come to the Stable.
My favorite “Catholic film” is On The Waterfront. In fact, it is not only my favorite Catholic film but also my favorite film. Every year in my philosophy and film course at St. John’s University, I show the film to students. I have seen it so often that I almost have all the dialogue memorized.
Filmgoers may disagree about what makes a film Catholic, but I cannot imagine anyone arguing successfully that Les Miserables does not qualify not only as a Catholic film but also as a great Catholic film. It is easy to be critical and point out the violence and pagan view of sex that are prevalent in so many contemporary films. When some outstanding film appears with terrific values, it is important that those of us who think film is important do what we can to promote the film. That is why I am hoping that anyone who reads this column will see Les Miserables and encourage others to see it as well.
There have been other film versions of Victor Hugo’s novel. In 1935, Fredric March and Charles Laughton were in an excellent version of the novel. March played the hero Jean Valjean, whose conversion experience changes his entire life, and Laughton played Inspector Javert, a man incapable of believing that there can be a conversion, that someone, with God’s help, can really change, perhaps even move from being a sinner to being a saint.
There was a 1952 version with Michael Rennie as Valjean and Robert Newton as Javert and a 1998 version with Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert. I think the film with March and Laughton is exceptionally good, but none of these films were musicals. The new Les Miserables that came out in December is based on the stage musical that opened on Broadway more than 20 years ago.
I have a strange history with the musical. The first time I saw the play, I thought it was pleasant but nothing special. However, at the curtain calls, when I saw most of the audience giving the play a standing ovation and observed that many in the audience were crying, I wondered if perhaps I had missed something. A short time after I had seen the play a friend loaned me a CD with the show’s score. When I listened to the score, my appreciation of the play changed dramatically. I was stunned at how much I had missed while I was in the theatre. After seeing the play a few more times, it became my favorite musical.
The new Les Miserables powerfully depicts the power of God’s grace in helping a man change his life. It beautifully depicts that being willing to forgive is non-negotiable if one is trying to model his or her life on Christ. I suppose the scene in the film that I like most is the same scene that I like most in the stage version. It is a scene that both underlines the power of love and depicts some characters participating in the risen life of Christ after their deaths. In that scene is the most quoted line from the musical: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Sounds as though the author of that line was familiar with the theology of St. John.
I don’t find a great deal in contemporary film or theatre or music that speaks directly to my Catholic faith. Often I can find material which I can interpret from a Catholic viewpoint, but rarely do I find that contemporary works of art are obviously religious. Les Miserables is an exception. That is probably one reason why I am so enthusiastic about this film. My guess is that it will win some awards, but I am hoping that in addition to winning awards, it is viewed and appreciated by many.
NB: Catholic News Service included Les Miserables in its top 10 list of movie selections for 2012 (See Page 28). The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13, parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.