Every so often you come across a work of art that reminds me of just why art is so necessary. Generally your initial reaction is to simply get lost in the creation--whether it be a wonderful painting, an excellent book, or a grand musical composition. Once you find yourself again, however, you feel as if your soul has been transported. Your eyes have been opened, and you see more clearly. You own the truth that you may have already known...because it was presented in a way so fundamental to who you are as a person that it becomes a part of you.
Most recently, I had this experience in a movie theater, when Mark and I saw the long-anticipated film adaptation of Les Miserables. I confess that I saw it two weeks ago, but I’ve only just gotten over the stage where all I can say is, “Wow.” Luckily for you, my thoughts are a little more coherent at this point!
As in any story or work of art, the first thing you notice about Les Miz is the tone. It’s dark. Very dark. You hear it in the music, you see it in the blacks and greys, the mud and the bruises of the opening scene. You feel it in the moral depravity of the main character: Jean Valjean, a newly released convict who has been blinded by hate, who resents the world for the injustice it has shown him.
But then: light. Jean Valjean, lost and unwanted everywhere he goes, is shown generosity and mercy by a kindly, gentle bishop. This one moment of pure goodness has the power to change Valjean’s entire perspective on life. The bishop exhorts him to be a become a better man--and he is so moved that almost against his will he obeys.
Of course the darkness returns. Valjean has chosen holiness, and you see his struggle to be saintly in every choice he makes. But that doesn’t make his life any easier. The world is full of evil, and the movie portrayed it just as it is: terrible and ugly and dark.
It’s not easy to watch. You cringe at the living conditions of the French people. You retch at the sight of the prostitutes, who despite trying to make the best of a terrible situation have all but lost their humanity. There is nothing beautiful or alluring about them, and they know it: they are selling themselves as bodies without souls--and some brilliant costume and makeup artists decided to make them look just like that: if you’ve ever seen an image of a zombie, that is the first thing that will come to your mind when you see the “Lovely Ladies.”
Yet even these most depraved of characters let rays of light shine through. They see the desperate Fantine, who joins their ranks of the walking dead in order to earn money to save her daughter, and they offer her consolation. They’re wrong in what they offer--but they really are trying to help her. That moment was one of the most touching of the entire film. It’s one thing to be kind when you are a bishop, whose life would be comfortable but for his own radical generosity. It’s even understandable to be kind when, like Valjean, you have been shown goodness and mercy yourself, when your life has been changed for the better. But these ladies had nothing. Their lives were ruined and the only logical emotion for them to feel would be hate. Yet...they show superhuman pity and love. Gives you shivers.
These stark contrasts of light and dark continue throughout the film, and make it the work of art it is. As difficult as it was to watch the moments of depravity, they were necessary. Pope John Paul II made an important point in his must-read Letter to Artists: "Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling.aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption." If it was hard for me to watch, I can only imagine how hard it was for the actors to portray, for the director to conceive. They had to plumb those blackest depths with their imaginations--and every writer knows how painful and grueling that is...but without showing us the darkness, we would be unable to see the heroic virtue and Divine grace it requires for a character to move toward light. And they did so with an admirable restraint; by showing the squalor, they portrayed prostitution and objectification of women in its proper light: as something that can only invoke pity and repulsion in the heart of the viewer. I could shout, “Women should be treated with love and respect!” from the housetops every day for the rest of my life and never get at the truth as well as those few scenes did.
Another striking contrast of darkness and light was in the way the characters viewed and spoke to or about God. You don’t usually get to watch movies in which God is a character...though He may have been invisible throughout Lis Miserables, you can’t deny His presence. Almost every character says His name. In the darkness, the loathsome Thenardiers throw the words “God” and “Jesus” about like ping pong balls--they’ve tossed Him aside--and boy, does it show in their misery. But in the light, Jean Valjean invokes His help. The name of God again breaks through the darkness at the moment of Fantine’s death, when she recognizes rightly that Valjean was “sent from God in heaven.” Later, His name is sung out in prayer by the gentle sisters who unknowingly provide Valjean the sanctuary that saves Cosette’s life.
But by keeping God invisible--leaving us in darkness, as it were--the great artistic point of the story was made. It’s summed up in one of the last lines of the film: “And remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.”
Talk of art conveying truths... Talk of light breaking through darkness... The character who sings that line--sings it from Heaven.
And this is the power you have as writers and artists. Even if you do so in a small way, you have the power to lift your audience's minds to greater things.