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Mercy beats justice in Les Misérables

08 February 2013

The film offers very modern messages, says Paul Vallely

WE WERE still talking theology over dinner on Monday. The prompt was not the over-long sermon we had heard on Sunday morning, but the film we had seen in the afternoon. I confess that I had not been keen to seeLes Misérables, whose music has always seemed to me mawkish and contrived, but the trailer for the film had looked like a spec­­tacular piece of historical fiction ( Comment, Review, 11 January). And so it proved.

The stunning cinematic realism in this account of Victor Hugo's novel is a most effective counter­­point to the heightened sentiments of its musical score. And where most Hollywood films centre on conflict between good and bad,Les Misérablesis about salvation and damnation, which is a great deal more interesting.

The two characters at the centre, the policeman Javert and the convict Jean Valjean, have different understandings of what "good" means - and they respond very differently to the gift of grace and their sense of God's presence in the world. Javert is a man of the law, pharisaical in his com­mitment to it and enslaved by the fear of trans­gression. Valjean, the man outside the law, is born again into a life of compassion and love through the freedom brought by forgiveness. This is not good v.evil, but mercy v.justice. It is a story about, as our 12-year-old aptly put it, what happens when humanity collides with the law.

For a man who was politically progressive, Hugo is surprisingly conserva­tive in his theology. Although in later life he styled himself a free­thinker, he began as a Roman Catholic, and his notion of redemption rests on a sense that a price must be paid for salvation. So the heroine of the opening, Fantine, whose exploitation and tragedy make her the archetypal misérable, pays heavily for the sin of bearing a child out of wedlock, and must offer up her life to God in exchange for life for her child. No new beginning for her; she is the victim of the need for justice as Javert would see it.

Other characters, such as the unrequited Eponine, the artful dodger Gavroche, and the naïve, idealistic, revolutionaries on the lonely barricade, can find redemption only through death.

There is something unpalatably quiescent about all that. But the potency of its theology comes across in Valjean's dilemma: "If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!" The notion of damnation internalised moral choice in a way that has been lost to our con­temporary world, in which, as the Chris Huhne case shows, shame is replacing guilt as our moral spur - and tensions between the letter of the law and its spirit tend to be resolved by "what you can get away with".

We have come a long way from Javert's insis­tence that people cannot change - once a thief, always a thief - and that the law, God's or man's, is the source of order in the world. But we have lost something, too, of what Valjean understands when he tells Javert: "You've done your duty, nothing more," with its implicit reminder that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sab­bath. For Javert, mercy just messes up the rules; for Valjean, mercy is the greatest rule. Those who judge die; those who show mercy live; and "To love another person is to see the face of God."

What is also striking is the unalloyed goodness of the Bishop, who lies to the police to say that he gave Valjean the silver that the former convict actually stole. In a metaphor for the extravagance of grace, he then gives Valjean his silver candle­sticks - a symbol of light. "I have bought your soul for God," he says. Hugo was not praising the priesthood here; he was holding up the standard from which he saw so many priests fall short. That message is not outdated, either.

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