The Miserable Ones
There are many fans of Les Misérables in the world. I am one of them. My wife and I have seen the 1980 musical, the 1998 dramatic film, and now the musical that is currently playing in theaters. We've been moved to tears each time we've seen it. Reactions to the film have been fascinating to hear and read. Most people are buzzing about the music, the live recordings of the vocals that were used and have become a rarity in films. Most were stirred, even stunned, by the performances, though many panned Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert. There have been a good number shocked by the crass vulgarity in the film (Rated PG-13). Bob Bixby, on his blog Pensées, had this reaction:
I was bemused by the many Christian lovely ladies in the blogosphere who were scandalized by the Lovely Ladies song (and Master of the House). Haven’t they ever listened to the actual words of that song? The lyrics are famous. The movie did not falsely advertise itself. It was a screenplay of the famous musical. What movie were they going to see? And what did they expect? “Hungry for a poke” doesn’t mean a Facebook poke, for crying out loud. And a “thick one” is not talking about a French baguette… It’s crass. It’s rude. It’s ugly. It’s sailor talk.
Les Misérables means ‘The Miserable Ones’ and I think the film, like the book, successfully depicts how miserable humanity can become. I wonder if those who were offended by scenes in the movie have ever read through their Bibles. There is a menagerie of miserable ones found in its pages. See the book of Hosea for instance, Ezekiel’s portrayal of the whore that Israel had become (Ezekiel 16 and 23), and the like. The Bible doesn’t sensationalize sin, but it doesn’t shy away from it either. Neither does this film. Again, Bixby comments:
[Director] Tom Hooper didn’t give anyone an opportunity to sympathize with the sex-crazed sailors and foul-mouth thieves. He showed it and we were all led by his artistry to recoil in hasty disassociation from the wanton lust, greed, injustice, and bawdy humor. In a packed theater there were no laughs at the crass jokes. Nobody wanted to identify with them. There was comic relief when the master of the alehouse pretended to love Cosette and laughter erupted then, but during all the crass singing prior to that it was relatively subdued. Humanity embarrassed by humanity.
Then Bixby takes a somewhat unexpected turn, when he compares Javert to the elder brother from the parable of the Prodigal Son. Those who are appalled by the depiction of the “miserable ones” fail to see their own “miserableness.”
Javert was the “elder brother” from Jesus’ parable. He was not that bad, bad prodigal. He honored the law, did his best, and believed that mercy threatened justice. He did not realize that mercy is the handmaiden of justice. The priest who forgave Valjean was the only one who could give mercy because he was the only one justly offended. But in Javert’s world it was a law that knew no mercy… He relentlessly pursues good, exactitude, and righteousness. He’s chafed when mercy is shown. He believes it’s a sign of weakness to refuse to exact the punishment called for by the letter of the law. He believes that he will never need mercy.
In the end Javert exacted justice on himself, committing suicide, unable to find mercy because he had been cursed with the affliction of always being on the right side of the law, therefore never needing mercy. Because mercy is for broken people. It’s for people who find themselves outside of the camp, outside the lines, outside the safety of acceptance, and hunted by the law. Javert dutifully sacrificed and served the law, and because he failed the law by not bringing Valjean to justice he dutifully killed himself.
Earlier in the film, Jean Valjean, is a vivid portrayal of mercy. Later in the film, Javert is a disturbing picture of justice. The law will kill. When you insist on denying mercy to others, you cannot accept it yourself. It just wouldn’t be right. But the law is not meant to show us we’re right. The law is meant to show us our need of mercy. Again, Bixby explains:
[As good as it is, the story remains] only a teaser. Without a clear understanding of the Gospel of Jesus’ mercy to sinners, they grasp at an ideal of mercy that can never be realized until they know the terror of the law. And they can never know the terror of the law until they know that, according to the Bible, they are les misérables.
Only les misérables find mercy.