Have today’s movies lost religion? Not necessarily — but sometimes it helps to know where to look. For instance, mainstream films are more likely to include sympathetic depictions of religious faith in period pieces than in stories set in the present day.
Take a pair of remarkable films that opened in theaters at the end of last year, which have more than a little in common: Les Misérables and Anna Karenina. (Les Misérables is still in theaters; Anna Karenina debuts on home video February 19. (Both are mature viewing.)
Both films are ambitious, Oscar-nominated, British ensemble/costume dramas based on sweeping 19th-century European social novels. Both come to the screen in some way via the stage: This Les Mis is the first big-screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tale by way of the hugely popular musical version, while Anna Karenina has been brilliantly reworked as a semi-stage-bound theatrical production.
Both films freely use traditional Christian vocabulary and themes: God and the soul; sin and damnation; grace, redemption, forgiveness. Christian imagery populates both films: crucifixes, icons, the Bible.
The first act of Les Mis includes the famous pivotal episode in which Valjean (Hugh Jackman), driven by desperation to steal silverware from a hospitable bishop, is briefly detained by police — until, to Valjean’s surprise, the bishop not only supports his story that the stolen items were “gifts” but enhances the “gift” with more silver.
Privately exhorting Valjean to see a “higher plan” here, the bishop concludes, “By the witness of the martyrs / By the Passion and the Blood / God has raised you out of darkness / I have saved your soul for God.” This stunning grace transforms Valjean into an honest, conscientious man — and ultimately a self-sacrificial hero who is finally acclaimed “a saint.”
The bishop isn’t the only religious figure who aids Valjean. At the end of the first act, he and young Cosette find sanctuary in a convent. At the climax, following the novel (though not the musical), Valjean returns to the convent to die — and his soul is welcomed to paradise, not only by the spirit of Cosette’s mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) but also by the sainted bishop. During this soteriological finale, the chorus affirms, in one of the musical’s best-known lines, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
There are no prominent clergy or religious in Anna Karenina, a morally complex tale contrasting the disastrous affair and ruined marriage of the titular heroine (Keira Knightley) with a more hopeful marriage, that of Levin and Kitty.
Still, the film is pervaded by a religious vision, particularly in connection with Anna’s cuckolded husband Karenin (Jude Law), who is portrayed with surprising sympathy and decency. For Karenin, marriage is “bound together by God,” and while he assures Anna that “sin has a price,” he is able to forgive both her and her lover Vronsky.
Vronsky speaks for the modern glorification of passion when he tells Anna, “You can’t ask why about love!” Offering a strikingly different moral vision, one evocative of John Paul II’s theology of the body, Levin says: “Impure love is not love…. Sensual desire indulged for its own sake is greed, a kind of gluttony, and a misuse of something sacred which is given to us so that we may choose the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness.”
Echoing this countercultural wisdom, another character says, “Live rightly, for your soul, not your belly.” Les Mis may be more explicitly religious, but Anna Karenina is perhaps more challengingly so.
Les Misérables in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review (plus product notes).
Anna Karenina in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.