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Recommended and reviewed by

Fr. Patrick J. Griffin, CM

(This review originally appeared on the site Vincentian Mindwalk)

Les Misérables

PG-13, 2012, Drama, 2hr, 38mins

This movie is a musical—though perhaps more properly an opera since every word is sung. The music, lyrics, and performances are beautiful. The theme is unmistakably Vincentian.

Victor Hugo’s great work Les Misérables comes to a head during the June rebellion in Paris in 1832. Envision the ramparts! At that time, in that same city, for some 25 years, Rosalie Rendu would already have worked for the poor in the Mouffetard neighborhood; two years previously (1830), Catherine Labouré would meet the Blessed Mother on the rue du Bac and the body of St. Vincent would arrive at the rue de Sèvres; only one year earlier (1831), Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam would have begun his study at the Sorbonne. The desperate straits of the poor, the abuse of children, the men who steal food to feed their families, and the women who sell their bodies for the care of their children provide context for the movie and the period. You can feel the tug on the Vincentian soul as you experience the way in which you find yourself planted in this place at this time.

In the hospital in which Fantine, an early and important female character, dies, Hugo offers a description of the Sisters who nurse there and attend her:

The two nuns attending the infirmary, Lazarists as all these Sister of Charity are. . . St. Vincent de Paul has spiritually portrayed the figure of a Sister of Charity in these admirable words in which he unites so much freedom with so much servitude. “Her only convent will be the house of sickness; her only cell, a rented room; her chapel the parish church; her cloister the streets of the city, or the wards of the hospital; her only wall obedience; her cloister bars the fear of God; her veil modesty.” (pp. 212-213)

Do more familiar words appear in the Vincentian corpus? This portrayal, quoted in Hugo’s text, identify these nurses—though only briefly shown—as our Sisters of Charity. Vincentian eyes and charism easily recognize them.

Other associations could be made with a Vincentian world, but the real heart of the movie, as well as of the Vincentian connection, lies in the tales of sin, repentance, forgiveness and healing. As we know, the story of Saint Vincent de Paul can only be told as we include these elements in Gannes, Folleville, the mission, the ministry and so many other places.

The central character of Les Misérables is Jean Valjean who steals bread to feed his sister and niece. Captured and imprisoned for many years, he leaves his chains embittered. Unable to find work, a Bishop treats Valjean with kindness and welcomes him into his home. Overcome by temptation the still broken Valjean steals some gold furnishings from this gentle bishop—naturally one of the pieces is a cross. Once again Valjean is captured and once again seems fated for prison. The Bishop, however, forgives him and gives him the stolen items with the encouragement to start a new life.

Thus begins the story of reconciliation. A life changed by love follows. The title Les Misérables can be translated in different ways, but the intent remains. It refers to “the miserable ones, the poor.” Their situations drive the novel and the movie. These richly presented characters welcome understanding, compassion and resolution.

Viewing this story with a Vincentian perspective brings an added blessing to a terrific movie. Members of the Family could have a learning experience as they unpack the story and the players. We might wonder whether we recognize Frederic or Catherine in some of the characters, or the essential ministry of a Rosalie. Could one of the key lines of the movie (perhaps the key line) suggest for us Vincent’s two-sides of the medal: “To love another person is to see the face of God”?

In case you were wondering, I loved this movie. Its Vincentian heart captured mine. I am confident to say that it could do the same for yours.

Information on the film can be found HERE.

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