The movie, Les Mis, based on Victor Hugo’s book, Les Misėrables, portrays a segment of life in Paris, France, from 1815-1832. The screen version, released on Christmas day, 2012, presents a clear storyline capturing the book’s various themes including forgiveness and grace.
Jean Valjean has endured the consequences of stealing a loaf of bread (five years of hard labor) and an escape attempt (14 more years of hard labor). Released from prison, he cannot find work because his papers identify him as a convicted criminal. In order to survive he thinks his only option is to steal again. When he steals silver from Monsiegneur Bienvenu, who has fed him and given him lodging, the gendarmes catch him and expect the bishop to press charges. Instead, Bienvenu hands Valjean the silver candlesticks and says he forgot them. That scene so perfectly pictures grace.
God’s grace gives us the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life despite the reality that we deserve punishment for our crimes. We can receive this forgiveness because Jesus “bought our redemption” when He paid the penalty for our sins by dying in our place. The priest tells Valjean that God has bought his soul; therefore he should become an honest man. Valjean eventually does that by throwing away his prison papers and assuming a new identity.
While Hugo’s intent was to expose his day’s social ills, he also dealt with the inherent evil in individuals, and its solution. When we accept the reality that God has bought our souls (paid for our sins), we are motivated to live in His grace enjoying our new identity as His children.
Police inspector Javert never understands this and keeps living by the law. When Valjean extends grace to Javert, he rejects it and chooses death by suicide. This perfectly illustrates Romans 3:20-24. “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”
The movie could be negative and depressing apart from the ending, which shows that life continues after death. It concludes that everyone’s life is significant if they have known love. Rather than highlighting romantic love, the story portrays the power of parental love—Cosette is loved by her mother Fantine and her foster father Valjean. This parallels the love God extends to everyone, even though we are sinners. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” Romans 5:8). Everyone who accepts God’s gracious gift of forgiveness and eternal life becomes His adopted child (see Romans 8:15-16).
A good challenge for the New Year would be to read the book of Romans in the Bible. Make a note of everything it says about SIN (sinners, sinned), GRACE (undeserved favor), and FAITH. We each can be like Javert, experiencing the wages of sin which is death, or like Valjean, enjoying the gift of God which is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).
One caution about the movie—it is rated PG-13 for (totally unnecessary) sexual content and some violence. As for musicality, the stage versions are much better. As for cinematography, it has way too many close-up shots. I got tired of seeing nostrils. But the movie does successfully portray the storyline and encourages giving of yourself to help the oppressed.
(All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.)