One of the most-loved films of 2012 (at least, by audiences) was the musical version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”. I remember seeing the teaser trailer when I was in Ecuador in May last year, and I was immediately pumped. With Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway leading the way, I knew this was going to be a cool movie—and indeed, I thought, it was. Some of the singing wasn’t exactly always pretty (looking at you, Russell Crowe), but some of it wasn’t intended to be: the movie musical has the advantage of letting the actors take the song and its emotions in many different directions and volumes, and director Tom Hooper used that very effectively, in my opinion. But there is also a very powerful story throughout the musical of redemption, forgiveness, and a hope for a better life.
Jackman plays prisoner 24601, or Jean Valjean, arrested during the French Revolution for stealing a loaf of bread and thus in prison for almost twenty years. Against the orders of commander Javert (Crowe), he breaks parole and after a time becomes the local mayor. Along the way, he finds Javert again, who does not recognize him now, and a young woman named Fantine (Hathaway), who, after getting fired from her job, becomes a prostitute to financially support herself and her daughter Cosette, who is currently in the care of relatives.
Valjean makes a promise to Fantine that he will find Cosette and take care of her himself, right before weak Fantine passes on. He searches for the young Cosette, finds her, sneaks her out of the care of her ignorant guardians (played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and takes care of her, all while Javert now has identified Valjean and vows to search for him until he puts him back in prison.
However, years later, in France after the Revolution, there are eventually young men and women who are still fighting back. One of those young men is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who, to the dismay of his friend Éponine (Samantha Barks), falls in love with Cosette, now an older but still young woman (if that makes any sense). And long story short, Marius fights with his friends against the government, many of them are killed, Éponine sacrifices her life for Marius, Valjean and Javert meet again, Valjean has a chance to kill Javert but doesn’t, Valjean fights with Marius and ends up saving his life, Javert finds the two of them but is remorseful to kill a man who saved his life, Javert jumps off a bridge to his death, Marius and Cosette get married, and Valjean passes on of old age and meets Fantine and other characters who died in the midst of battle. (Sorry I rushed all that, I just knew that if I detailed everything this would be a freaking long article.)
But I got to go back to the beginning in order to detail the spiritual aspect of “Les Misérables”. What I didn’t mention about Valjean breaking his parole was that the first place he goes for shelter is a church, where the priest welcomes him in. But one night, Valjean sneaks into the priest’s silver and steals a bunch of stuff and is soon caught by the police. They bring him back to the priest and tell him Valjean said he was given all that silver. But the priest confirms this: he even gives Valjean two candlesticks, telling him he forgot the best silver.
Valjean, in a moving musical number, is very regretful of this mistake, but grateful at the same time that he was shown mercy and that his life was saved. This new idea of mercy stays with him the rest of his life, as he shows compassion to the disgraced Fantine, the poor Cosette, the innocent Marius, and even his enemy Javert. And at the end of his life, when he is dying before his daughter and son-in-law, he is able to find a new home in Heaven (literally, he goes to Heaven and is let in by the priest from earlier, and then sees a bunch of the young men who he fought with in battle).
They never really mention Jesus’ name in the musical (maybe once or twice, I don’t really remember), but I do remember one repeated line in the musical: “To love someone is to see the face of God.” And to love someone is to show them compassion and mercy, an idea that most of the world has rejected. But Jesus taught His followers in the Sermon on the Mount: “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 5:43-45a)
It’s hard to love people that don’t love you back. And that could mean lots of things: a classmate, an authority, even a lover. But showing them all love despite your getting nothing in return is the sacrifice that Jesus asks for, and the sacrifice that He will reward us for someday. I pray that we would remember that today.