The Holy Experience of Watching Les Miserables

Ocean

Last week we watched the Tom Hooper production of Les Misérables. We have all seen it live (in London, no less!) but I believe that the next best thing to a live performance is this movie.

I cannot see Les Misérables without crying. The story,full of redemption and grace, is timeless.

For those who don’t know the story, Les Misérables takes place in 19th century France. While it is commonly thought to be about the French Revolution, it is actually a different insurrection in 1832 that was quickly and violently stopped.

A prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean, better known by his number 24601, is granted parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was initially given 5 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child but because of many attempts to escape ended up being there for 19. Seen as a pariah because of his prison past, he struggles to find work or food.  He is ultimately taken in by a man of the cloth, the Bishop of Digne, and given food and lodging. He returns this kindness by stealing the silverware in the middle of the night, is caught by police and taken to be accused by the clergy. Instead of accusations, he is vindicated as  the Bishop claims they were given to Valjean as a gift and wonders aloud to Jean Valjean’s captors why he left the silver candlesticks in ‘his haste’ .  This act of grace is given with a challenge by the clergyman to ‘Become an honest man.’ He journeys through his life doing just that, though continuously haunted by his past in the form of a police inspector named Javert.

The contrast between Javert and Jean Valjean is profound as one is consumed with the need for justice and retribution and the other attempts to live out his life in grace, but secrecy. Like all good stories there is the protagonist, a conflict, and a critical climax that I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the show.

Les Misérables is great theology wrapped up in an excellent story and beautiful music. Watching either the movie or the live production is nothing if not a holy experience. In Les Misérables, love and kindness are woven together and so grace and mercy triumph.

The Bishop plays a small role in this musical, but it is the Bishop that I have been thinking about since last week. From the beginning, the Bishop takes a risk on this prisoner, Jean Valjean. He doesn’t know why he’s been in prison. Just that he is a man, troubled and in need of food and shelter. In the movie rendition, two older women who obviously care for the Bishop’s residence, look aghast as the Bishop extends hospitality and kindness to this dangerous stranger.

In the theologically rich book of Romans, there is an ending of a verse that is never far from my mind. It’s the end of verse 4 in the 2nd chapter and it reads like this: “not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”* 

We can’t say no to something, unless there is something better to say yes to. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean a picture of something better, of a life lived well, of grace, and of God’s kindess. Jean Valjean cannot say no to this offering and his entire life is changed.

God is infinitely creative in his design of holy moments and experiences; but there are times when I need my vision checked and restored in order to see and participate. Last week, sitting on a couch and watching Les Misérables was one of those holy moments, and I am grateful.

***

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!
Forgive me all my trespasses
and take me to your glory
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!”

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare;
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

*The end of the verse is part of a longer conversation as the whole passage is about passing judgment on others, but for the purposes of my reflections I have chosen to focus just on this verse ending.

Note: For an interesting and informative read take a look at the article “Enjoy Les Miserables. But please get the history straight!”

Liesl Lives On

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The first movie I ever saw was The Sound of Music. I was young – not more than seven years old, and our boarding school had obtained the movie from the Canadian Embassy to show to students. 

From the first notes of “The Hills are Alive” I was enthralled; at “Do Re Mi” I was smitten; and at “Sixteen going on Seventeen” I was in love. The Sound of Music would forever be one of the sounds of my childhood. 

While all of the Von Trapp children felt like friends, Liesl was the beloved darling of the film. Beautiful Liesl who gracefully jumped on and off the benches of a gazebo with her love, Rolf. Liesl – with a dress that twirled and whirled as she danced and sang. 

Then there was Rolf — stupid, stupid Rolf who would betray young love and leave the embrace of one such as Liesl to join the Nazi youth. In doing so he betrayed all of us who loved Liesl. Liesl Von Trapp was a little girl’s idol. 

Yesterday, Charmian Carr – the real Liesl – died of a rare form of dementia in a facility in California. I didn’t know her real name until yesterday. In a short radio segment followed by a news article, I learned that she never had much of an acting role beyond Liesl. She grew to accept that, writing a book called Forever Liesl and hosting Sound of Music singalongs. I also learned that during the filming of the famous dance scene in “Sixteen going on Seventeen” she slid through the glass window in the gazebo and sprained her ankle. Evidently she continued dancing and singing, and the scene shows none of the pain she must have felt.   

Film is an amazing medium. We cling to stories and characters because they reflect something of who we want to be, something that we long for. Their characters first dominate the screen, larger than life, and some of them continue to affect our lives far beyond the screen. 

While raising our family, we never shied away from showing our children films. There were times overseas where we would rent pirated videos of newly released films to indulge our passion. The films were often distorted and poor quality but our kids didn’t know any better, and we were not about to tell them. Moving on to the United States, we began to hold Oscar Parties on Oscar night, putting up a life-size Oscar made of cardboard and laying down a red plastic tablecloth, a cheap simulation of ‘the red carpet’. We would dress up according to the films of the year and memories of my husband dressed as Caesar from The Gladiator, my daughter Annie dressed as Virginia Woolf from The Hours, and one of my boys a young and handsome Zorro are captured in faded color photos.

Maybe it was a need to occasionally escape reality that led us to a love of films, but I like to think it was more than that. I imagine it was our love of stories and storytelling where themes from movie plots could challenge, humor, delight and inspire. Perhaps it was also our desire to live life in living color complete with our own characters and plot. For some time I tried to defend this part of us, and then realized that I didn’t have to.  It was who we were and not something to be ashamed of. I have no doubt that each of my children have their own “Liesl” – a character that they will always remember with fond nostalgia.

So Charmian Carr has died, but she has forever left us with Liesl; a Liesl who will continue to enamour and inspire little girls and capture the imagination of teenage boys for generations to come. 

“This is Real”

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The movie A Beautiful Mind is based on the story of a brilliant mathematician, John Nash. Nash is as arrogant as he is brilliant, but that changes as he goes through an excruciating process of being diagnosed as a schizophrenic. The mind that served him so well betrays him and he is left wondering what is real and what is delusional.

The viewer of the film walks the journey with the character (played by Russel Crowe) and we enter a world of frenetic paranoia and misbelief. We experience the disease and throughout the process we too are left wondering what is real.

There are many moments in the film, but for me one particularly poignant moment sums up the entire story. John Nash is in their bedroom sitting on the bed. He is in deep distress. He is questioning everything. He doesn’t know what is real and what is a hallucination, the result of a disease taking over his mind. In an unforgettable moment, his wife takes her hands and puts them on his face. “You want to know what is real?” she says “This is real.”  She then takes his hands and places them on her face and then her heart.

“This is real.” 

What is real? The question resonates through the ages. Perhaps someone with mental illness has to face it more directly then others, but we all have to ask this question – what is real?

From the time we are young our world is divided into the secular and the sacred; the real and the ‘not real.’ We go away on a weekend of prayer or retreat, and we are told at the end “Tomorrow you will go back to reality. You will leave this mountaintop experience. You can’t live in it forever.” We are told to “remember the mountain top when we get back to reality.” We soberly nod, we will try and remember all this when we are back to real life. After all, we reason, the disciples didn’t live on the Mount of Transfiguration forever.

But what if we have ‘real’ wrong?

I am taken back to the scene in A Beautiful Mind. What is real?

“You want to know what is real? I’ll tell you what is real.”

Real is the Holy Trinity, mystery and awe surrounding the three in one.

Real is the body and the blood, Christ and his church.

Real is forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

What is real? Let me take your hands and show you what is real. 

Real is communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Real is communion with others in this journey. Real is knowing that the eternal is forever and the now is just now. Real is knowing there is a greater reality in this thing called life.

We are tricked and trapped into believing that everything is reality, except the holy.

But perhaps it is in the holy that we find our truest reality. 

*****

I wrote this yesterday, but as I read my mom’s comment, I thought “Yes!” So here are the wise words of Puddleglum, the Marshwiggle from The Silver Chair by C.S.Lewis.

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Sharmeen Obaid and the Power of Story

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Watching the Oscars has long been a tradition in our family. When our kids were younger, an Oscar party was a yearly event. We would literally roll out a red carpet, serve fancy food, and dress up as characters from the year’s films. The kids invited their friends and we had ballots where we would attempt to guess the winners. Though always on a Sunday and thereby a school night, we always watched until the end when the year’s best film was announced.

Engaging with film and story is something everyone in our family loves to do. Perhaps it is no surprise that one of my children lives with his wife in Los Angeles and works in the industry.

Though we didn’t have a party last night, we did watch the Oscars and eat gorgeous, fancy food.

I’ll confess that I have not seen a lot of the films that were nominated so I felt a bit out of touch. But for me, the best part of the evening was when Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid won her second Oscar for the film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” The film in the “documentary short” category is about “honor killings,” a practice that still goes on in the world today where a woman is killed so she will not dishonor her family. Tragically, many women die every year from this practice.

Her particular film was about a Pakistani woman, Saba Qaiser, who survived an attempted honor killing by her father and brother.

It was Sharmeen Obaid’s speech that had me cheering her on from my spectator spot on the couch. She used her 45 seconds in the best way possible by saying this:

This is what happens when determined women get together. From Saba, the woman in my film who remarkably survived an honor killing and shared her story, to Sheila Nevins and Lisa Heller from HBO, to Tina Brown, who supported me from day one. To the men who champion women, like Geof Bartz in my film, who’s edited the film, to Asad Faruqi, to my friend Ziad, who brought this film to the government.

To all the brave men out there, like my father and my husband, who push women to go to school and work, and who want a more just society for women.

She ended her speech by saying this:

This week the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.

There are so many things about this that I love. I love her emphasis on determined women, her recognition and honor of the woman in her story. I love that she praised the men who are a part of this, recognizing that men standing up for the rights of women is also an important part of changing a society. Most of all, I love that this film has the highest office in the country of Pakistan realizing the need for a law to change.

The well-told story of one woman changing the lives of millions. That is the power of story folks! 

I join the thousands around the globe who are cheering on Sharmeen Obaid and story tellers like her – story tellers who use their craft to create change.

[Photo source: Copyright by World Economic Forum.swiss-image.ch/Photo Sebastian Derungs, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

“If You Had the Chance to Change Your Fate, Would You?”

Brave. Pixar. Strong Woman. Pure Magic. Love

These seven words are my “less than 140 character” review of the movie Brave. I loved it. Trust the creative minds at Pixar to develop a plot that combines a strong female character, a mother-daughter relationship and a look at breaking with tradition, churning it all together into the magical movie that is Brave.

We saw the trailer for so many weeks before the movie was released that we had memorized the lines; the more memorable ones being “If you had the chance to change your fate, would ya?” said with a lovely Scottish lilt and “I’m Merida and I’ll shoot for my own hand!”

If you had the chance to change your fate, would ya?

To briefly summarize, the princess Merida is the eldest child of her parents (King Fergus and Queen Elinor) and the time has come for her parents to invite suitors to compete for her hand in marriage. Being a free spirit she’ll have none of it and seeks to find a way to change her mother’s mind. The result is a change she never intended, resulting in consequences that make for a clever plot, an evolution of the mother-daughter relationship, a challenge to the custom of arranged marriages and the “growing-up” of a girl.

Merida is delightful as the strong-willed, red-headed heroine, as skilled at archery as any man, an agile horse rider and full of personality. In true Pixar fashion, the characters are so cute that you want to eat them!

As one who goes to the movies to feel something I was not disappointed – rather I was enveloped in the emotions of the film. It helped that Julie Fowlis, a Scottish musician, took me into another world with her Celtic song “Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A’ Chuain”.

I realized as the movie drew me further into the plot that I wanted my daughters there with me. Most mom/daughter relationships go through their stages of connection, disconnect, and finally a hope of reconnect that will transform into a unique friendship. The film was a beautiful picture of coming to terms with the differences that can present themselves between mothers and daughters; those that threaten to destroy, particularly when emotions run strong. Yet when worked through, they make the bond more enduring. Coupled with that is the quiet pride that a mom feels when she sees her daughter become a woman in her own right, displaying strength and resolve, those life gifts that take them so far. The part during the film where you know Queen Elinor is feeling this sentiment is captured with great humor but telling you would be a spoiler so I’ll leave it at that.

So to Annie and Stefanie – My brave girls-turned-women – When we’re all together in a few weeks we’ll go see Brave. And I am convinced that both of you, like Merida, will “Shoot for your own hand!” and hit the target.

Places to Retire: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful

From the moment I saw Maggie Smith, sitting in a crowded Indian bus surrounded by men, women and children, refusing food with the dismissive line “No thank you! If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it” I knew I would be first in line to see this film.

A sea of grey met us as we entered the theatre – and it wasn’t the curtains. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie this full of older adults! Swallowing our pride, we took our seats along with the other elderly, just glad we still had sprite in our steps and hoping we would look like the “young couple in the audience”.

We quickly forgot grey and age as we journeyed across the ocean, landing in India. From the drab of the United Kingdom to the sunshine and color of Jaipur, this film was pure delight from the opening scenes. Predictable? Maybe. Award winning? Who knows? But full of life and promise? Five Stars and more.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins in England where three men and four women, all retirement age, find themselves in less than satisfactory circumstances. Though their life situations are vastly different, ranging from a retired high court judge (Tom Wilkinson) to a housekeeper who has been “let go” (Maggie Smith), they are all in the same place of being lured to Jaipur through glossy advertising, a promise of luxury and a desire that their money would go farther. The goal of their journey? To enjoy a blissful and long-term (if not permanent) stay at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly and Beautiful)

As soon as they arrive it is clear that there is a massive disconnect between what was advertised and what currently exists. The advertisement is the dream of their enthusiastic host, Sonny (played by Dev Patel) and the reality is dust-covered bedrooms, cracking walls and rooms with no doors. In this context we follow their lives as they are transplanted into Indian soil.

The cast brings some of the best British actors together as they negotiate life in India midst the chaos, confusion and colors of a world far removed from their native England.

It was poignant and sometimes humorous watching Muriel (Maggie Smith) transform from an uptight, non-negotiating racist, to someone who begins to love both the people and the place, ultimately devoting herself to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I also felt a sadness and not a little frustration for Jean (Penelope Wilton of Downton Abbey) and Douglas (Bill Nighy), the one married couple in the group, as Douglas embraced all that Jaipur and India had to offer while Jean remained stuck, unable and unwilling to adapt and see beyond her myopic British molded vision.

Although the film is accused of being predictable, I was so caught up with the brilliance of the cast and the beauty of the place that it didn’t matter. Over and over I said both silently and audibly “That’s where I want to be! That’s where I want to retire”.

The delight for me was personal. Scenes of multicolored trucks and buses, crowds in the streets, beautiful shalwar, chemise and saris, motorized rickshaws and crowded bazaars all took me back to my childhood in Pakistan, where the streets of Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi look similar.

For those who have spent time in the subcontinent, be prepared to be less than satisfied with your current circumstances when you leave the theatre, but also be ready to laugh, smile and be thoroughly enchanted by the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and the Beautiful.

As for us? We left the movie knowing with certainty that, should the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel be real, this was the place we wanted to retire.

Memorable Quotes: 

Sonny Kapoor: “I have a dream Mummy. To create a home for the elderly, so wonderful that they will simply refuse to die.”

“Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.”

Muriel: “No thank you! If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it!”

“Like its characters, we want to hold on to the dream that all will come out right in the end if we only check into the right address.” Christian Science Monitor Movie Review

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Journey: One Year

A year ago on Monday we passed a milestone of parenting – we witnessed and participated in our son Micah’s wedding. There is a peculiar joy as you watch your child find a soul mate and embark on what is surely the hardest journey any two human beings will ever undertake. I watched this video made by Micah for Lauren with tears – may you enjoy this and be reminded of the mystery of marriage.

Happy Anniversary Micah and Lauren!