*** DEBUG END ***

Film review: Notre Dame on Fire

22 July 2022

The symbolic importance of the Notre-Dame fire is emphasised in the tense new film drama, says Stephen Brown

A still of the symbolic gargoyle in Notre Dame on Fire

A still of the symbolic gargoyle in Notre Dame on Fire

THE film Notre Dame On Fire (Cert. 12A) is a dramatised version of the evening of 15 April 2019 when Notre-Dame de Paris was ablaze. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film plays like a version of The Towering Inferno (1974) with Samuel Labarthe in Steve McQueen’s fire chief role.

Sticking closely to the facts, this production also a heightened sense of the numinous. Not only does it recount the self-sacrificial heroics of the officers controlling the flames: there is a strong sacramental element. The building isn’t just a fine example of French Gothic: it’s a shrine to our Lady, standing as a beacon of faith over 850 years of human activity. Moreover, among its venerated relics are the Crown of Thorns (buying it put France in debt for 35 years), a vial of Christ’s blood, a crucifixion nail, and a piece of the cross. The race is on to save them, as well as people.

The chief, explaining the situation to the real-life President Macron, issues a caveat. I can ask my crew to save lives, he says, but not stones and relics if it puts them at risk. Despite his warnings, some fighters volunteer for this “suicide mission” to reach the seat of the fire, thus saving the cathedral’s bells, walls, and numerous treasures.

We already know many of the details, which were extensively reported. The director, therefore, has the task of drawing us into a meta-story about this cathedral’s emblematic significance. Its falling, he claims, would have constituted a sign that the West was going to collapse, too. Annaud certainly knows a thing or two about pumping up the volume.

This film, destined for IMAX-scale screens plus other cinemas, has what he calls the perfect villain in the fire itself: a near-demonic character, which is symbolised by recurrent shots of a horned gargoyle. Further tension is generated by nail-biting delays in the fire brigade’s arrival amid traffic jams; and then there’s the custodian of artefacts at a function in Versailles all day and seemingly with sole knowledge of the code for the safe containing the sacred treasures.

Notre-Dame itself was unavailable for shooting. Instead, the cathedrals of Sens, Bourges, and Amiens were pressed into service, assisted by true-to-scale studio sets and highly convincing CGI of a fire burning at more than 2000°F. We should also remember that Jean-Jacques Annaud has made some other films dealing with religious matters, including The Name of the Rose (1986). On that occasion, he managed to omit all of Umberto Eco’s philosophical musings in the original novel.

This time, there is a self-conscious effort to emphasise the Christian dimensions to events. Fact or fiction, Padre Boulanger tells Ibrahim, “I’ve rescued holy hosts, the Body of Christ.” The Muslim fireman is visibly moved as he subsequently is by the crowd below singing the Angelus and “Amazing Grace”. A little excessive, perhaps, but witnessing the levels of faith in Notre Dame On Fire vigorously contests secularist assumptions that Christianity is dead. The film suggests that the material and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin. You can’t save one without the other.

In cinemas.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)