Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Human Face in Les Miserables

Over at Philosophical Fragments, hosted on Patheos, Timothy Dalrymple takes a stab at the theology of Les Miserables. Now, I don't know how THE theology of Les Mis could be summed up in so few words; Tim's attempt makes short shrift, both of theology and the sorts of questions the latest offering of Les Mis has been used to explore.

The latest extrapolation to the big screen starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crow, Anne Hathaway, and a few others of smaller repute like the comically serious Sasha Baron Cohen, caught me off guard. Familiarity with Victor Hugo's classic study of virtue and vice, joy and misery, fall and redemption in the period of revolutionary France convinced me of the theological potential for any cinematic adaptation. A number of years ago, I also saw a stage production of Les Mis in Toronto. The motifs of revolution were displayed across the stage; the death of tyrants by the will of the people, and so on. What I did not remember was the ubiquitous presence of the crucifix and sighs for divine salvation in every second song. The absence of visual effects on stage may have contributed to my inability to hear the otherwise pious content of the musical's songs.

So you must try and imagine my surprise to hear the songs anew. Hollywood seems to know only the rule of an eye for an eye. Repay violence with violence, and deal death to those who stand in your way. Hollywood doesn't seem to understand that conflict can be resolved by an act of charity. Watch Peter Jackson's latest The Hobbit to see just how difficult it is for contemporary filmmakers to negotiate between these two basic patterns of narrative resolution. Biblo may spare Gollum's life, certainly, but a thousand more like him are cut down without a second thought.

The theology of Les Mis, on Tim's account, can be encapsulated in a character study of Javert and Valjean. Each in their own ways, both are men of God. Javert loves God for his law, the source of orderliness in the world; while Valjean  loves God for his grace and mercy. Or you could say that Javert loves God the Creator and Valjean, God the Redeemer, exemplified especially by a voluntary act of mercy. As Creator, God is abstract, distant; but as redeemer, he is personal, ready-to-hand. And, it goes without saying, this division is just a bit too neat and tidy, a bit to narrow in scope, as well. Hugo would have known that one does not exclude the other; that God can be both, even if the human mind will not very easily allow that these two images can make a single divine visage. It is almost inconceivable that the rest of the cast of characters are no more than asides in the dialogue of a schizophrenic God with himself.

The interest the film shows in the human face is abrasive. Over on Slate, Dana Stevens comments, 'few performers can sing vocally demanding, dramatic solos while a movie camera inspects their nostrils.' Indeed, the interest is so abrasive you do not have to look far to find some film critic complaining about the director's decision to spend the better portion of the film with the camera looking closely at someone's face. But the human face is the point, and let the critics who do not, be damned for not seeing as much.

Alone in the world of objects--of things like rivers, rocks, and trees, of plants, animals, or even parts of things like the human hand or torso--the human face is lit up with intelligence. Not merely potentially intelligible, it actively communicates intelligibility. And that shines through all the blood, mud, and sweat that may cover the face.

The human face demands response, even if the only response offered is a refusal to respond. The imperative is found not only in Javert or Valjean's faces, but in every face. It is not reducible to any one person; it is shared by every person, regardless of their station in life, which is exactly what is meant when the human being is said to be created in the image of God.

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