Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Mis, Christianity, and (Lack of) Nuance

Critical reviews of the recent film version of Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, are somewhat middling. Some people hate it, and while others think it's quite good almost everyone seems to throw out the word "bombast" or decry the straightforward, hitting-you-over-the-head way of telling the story. Close-ups everywhere!
Buzz and Woody were too cerebral to enjoy a great movie

To be clear, I'm a wannabe film snob myself, and I tend to agree more with critics than not regarding movies. I like nuance and artistic storytelling and all of that, and highly value it. But I can't disagree more with the reviews that take Les Mis to task on this issue. The reason is that I think Les Mis is a very Christian work, and Christianity (as perhaps most religions do) has a long, proud, and deliberate tradition of eschewing nuance--and for good reason.

I feel like it all started with the 12 disciples. Christ dropped some pretty strong hints, especially seen in retrospect, that he was going to be resurrected after he was killed. But his disciples just didn't get it, or at least didn't believe it. It took them seeing the empty tomb and handling his resurrected body, scars and all, for them to be convinced. The gospel writers thus took pains to make it as obvious as possible for all their readers, who by and large wouldn't have that physical confirmation of the risen Lord, that Christ really was the Son of God and really did rise on the third day etc. etc. etc. They try to hit you over the head with it as much as possible!

Of course, there is plenty of nuance and depth and artistic things to be found in the story of Christ, and those should be sought after. But they are not the point. The point is "That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Christianity is meant to be universal; we want the earth to "be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." That can sound pretentious and overzealous and haughty, and I'm all for expressing it as tactfully as possible--but that really is the goal.

This film version of Les Mis, to me, embraced that unnuanced approach to Christianity and good versus evil. It hits you over the head with Jean Valjean as Christ figure, with the transformative power of mercy, with the rash beauty and tragedy of youthful courage, and (most importantly) it hits you over the head with the message of love. The end, with the final lines of "To love another person is the see the face of God" and the reprise of "Do You Hear the People Sing?," only this time with lyrics of spiritual--not political--revolution, were perfect to me. Those who have died--whether after a long life of struggle to do what's right despite murky issues of stealing bread to live and negotiating extra time with justice, or after being killed by political forces that robbed them of promising lives, or after a death brought on by the most degrading and inhumane circumstances brought on by the uncaring of others--"will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord." Enemies from all sides of a failed uprising one day "will walk behind the ploughshare / They will put away the sword."

That Christian message deserves sometimes to be shouted from the rooftops, nuance be damned. I wholeheartedly agree with one meta-reviewer who made this same point, albeit in secular tones: "The point of Les Misérables is its pure bombast: the way that it steamrolls any suggestion of cynicism with yet another soaring refrain." That's what this film did, at least for me. It embraces the truth of passion (and The Passion) for a moment without worrying about whether it's entirely rational or whether sophisticated people will scoff. Les Mis, like the Christianity with which it is so tightly enmeshed, is best enjoyed by the salt of the earth, the childlike, the trusting. This is one time I'm happy to go against the critics.