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The Truth about Movies and Les Miserables

January 18, 2013 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Entertainment, Videos

I don't usually go to movies to be entertained; instead, I go to engage with truth, beauty, and goodness. I find that movies often allow the Les-Miserables-Movie-Poster-Largevoice of God to break into my soul in a way that no other medium can. Movies to me are like living icons – windows to God and truth.

As such, I have little regard or appreciation for the common kind of analysis that movie critics provide (with a few exceptions). For instance, I agree with the critics that There Be Dragons really didn't work well as a movie. Frankly, I don't care much about the trivia related to why it didn't work. However, I think that all Catholics should see it. Why? Because in this movie we are presented with the opportunity to, in some small way, peer into the heart of a saint.

So my criterion for whether or not a movie should be seen relates more to its devotional value, and less to its cinematography, acting, or other qualities. That said, I do recognize that these latter elements can significantly enhance a films devotional value.

Here's what I want to know: can the movie draw me closer to the heart of Christ and therefore conform me more and more to Him? Can it shape my mind and perception in a way that helps me to “bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ”? Can it help me to love what God loves, hate what God hates, and see our existence more clearly through His eyes? Does it help me to see what He sees? It is in this spirit that I wholeheartedly recommend Les Misérables.

As with most truths that are profoundly important, Fr. Robert Barron is exemplary in his explication. I will leave you with his insightful reflections on this movie which should be seen and pondered by every person who desires to more fully understand what it means to live and love within the redemptive grace of God.

If you have you seen the movie and it has in some way helped you to better understand grace and redemption or the torment of law without grace, I would like to hear about your experience and reflections.


This post was originally published by the National Catholic Register.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • AnonymousD96

    Les Miserables had a profound effect on me. As a child/teenager, I suffered physical abuse from my father, mental and emotional abuse from my mother, and sexual abuse from a neighbor and then, in my late teens, from an ex-boyfriend. Society pushes us to psychologists and social workers to ‘repair’ our mental states so I decided recently to also go to a psychologist in order to fix my mental state. It was tolerable though the forgiveness of my father was questioned and the fact that I had trouble forgiving the others was not a priority. The psychologist was trying to bring out my anger so I could heal but I no longer had anger. Though a friend had strongly suggested Spiritual Direction would be a better path, I hesitated as I could not figure out how SD would help me heal.
    Never did I ever think that a movie would put me on the right path. Javert followed the law of the land. He did not let the grace of God, forgiveness, or love in his heart. He could not find that healthy balance between society/law and God. It killed him. Even after he was shown the grace of God through Jean Valjean, Javert chose a path that did not let God in his heart.
    Yet, the Church opened its doors to Jean Valjean and he chose to enter them. Jean Valjean was saved.
    My words cannot do this movie justice or fully explain the need of love and forgiveness in one’s life. Personally, it taught me that I do not need to be angry to heal. My personal path needs to be the path of the Church to fully heal and learn to forgive. The Church has always been my rock no matter how far I may have wandered from it at times. The doors are always open – ready to teach you love and forgiveness and the grace of God.

    • Dear Friend: Your path has been very difficult and you are courageous and wise to cling to the ultimate source of all true healing. Though spiritual direction is not a direct cure for psychological wounds, it can be the most powerful cure for the most significant challenges that surface out of the kind of trauma you have experienced. I would echo the advice you received regarding spiritual direction. To give you a friendly nudge, may I strongly recommend you read “Unbound” by Neal Lozano? This book will give you clear insights into how dealing with the spiritual aspect of our makeup can bring profound healing, even to the kinds of deep wounds you have encountered. Regardless, these kinds of wounds have spiritual consequences. I have absolutely no doubt about that. Please keep leaning into the pain and on the one who can set you free. Be assured of my prayers. 

    • Becky Ward

      I have experienced the same type of things you mention, and I would strongly suggest you look into the possibility of attending a “Grief to Grace’ retreat. These retreats have been developed by the same couple who founded Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats for healing after abortion. They have helped hundreds of thousands of women and men. I attend a Grief to Grace retreat last September and it was a ‘key’ that unlocked the chains that had held me bound for more than 45 years. I didn’t even know about the sexual abuse in my life until almost three years ago…..but I see now that it clouded and had a huge impact on my life and ALL of my relationships. I was a prisoner and didn’t know it. The retreat was a safe place to open that door and hear how others have “been there”. We are not alone.

      Here are some links to two books that were very helpful to me, and the book that Dan mentions in his reply to you was actually included as part of the ‘aftercare’ packet that they gave us on the retreat. They are excellent!!!

      Know that all of this is the work of the devil. I was so busy for most of my life that I couldn’t see (or didn’t want to see) the trouble deep inside, yet it was eating me up. I finally reached a point that I was crying all the time….couldn’t focus on my work, was getting sick, and ran myself into a proverbial ‘wall’. Seven years later I see it as one of the greatest blessings in my life. One of my biggest regrets though is that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn this sooner…..because I passed some of my ‘abuse colored’ behaviors and ways of thinking, and being, on to my kids….yet I have faith that God will help them.

      If you want to talk you can reach me at

      You are in my prayers!

  • MaryofSharon

    Yes, yes, yes! to all that you say about this film. I’ve read the book, seen the stage production multiple times, and viewed the PBS concerts celebrating the 10th and 25th anniversary countless times, yet this film is able to offer Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in a way that far surpasses any of these other presentations of Victor Hugo’s story.

    To begin with, the movie is art at its very, very finest. The acting/singing, particularly of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, is unprecedented.  You enter into the very souls of Valjean and Fantine, through the art of these actors.

    But what makes this movie beyond exceptional is that this extraordinary art is applied to a such a worthy subject, that of the transforming union of a soul with God through an knowledge of His love and mercy. Isn’t that what all of us who study traditional spirituality are longing for and striving for?  Isn’t that what the heart of every man is made for?  The way Valjean’s prayers are portrayed is, again, unprecedented.  The sets, the camera angles, and above all Jackman’s passion, show a man in communion with God, wrestling to overcome his self, and ultimately surrendering to love, love that expresses itself time and time and time and time again in beautiful, heroic, self-sacrifice.  His love does not discriminate.  He loves the poor as he gives them dignity in a job. He loves a prostitute as her literally picks her up off the street to care for her.  He loves the orphan (Cosette).  He loves the man (Marius) who will separate him from the only human love he has ever known in Cosette. He loves the stranger, who offered him freedom when falsely identified as 24601. And most powerfully he loves his enemy (Javert) with overflowing mercy and compassion.

    I’ve seen this movie three times.  The most recent time I went alone, specifically with the intention of meditating on it, seeking to grow in an understanding of what love really is, and to see what power the love of God can have on one who knows the Source of all Love. 

  • Becky Ward

    I don’t go to, or watch movies much any more, and while I am familiar with the title of this story……I didn’t know what it was about until now, so I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about this. I can’t wait to see it!!

    • Of all people! Please let us know what you think after you see it. Warning – it does have some very vile scenes but I do believe they are necessary to properly reflect on the depravity of godlessness.

      • Becky Ward

        I KNOW!! 🙂 I’m terrible!! There is just so much out there that looks harmless until you get into it – books, movies, etc. – that I have been very cautious about what I watch or read. 

        I have no doubt I will love it….and will let you know.

  • MaryofSharon

    I’m so glad you initiated this discussion, Dan.  I’ve been looking for a forum in which I could write about how much this film impacted me. 

    Something else of which this movie convicted me of as I meditated on it (see my post below for initial thoughts) is the inseparability of the love of God and the love of man. The traditional spirituality, to which those of us who frequent this site are drawn, can, at times, seem to hyperfocus on that union of love between “me and God”, such that some may want to seek sweet and solitary communion with Him to the neglect of the messiness of loving those He places in our lives.  

    Jean Valjean’s relationship with God models for us how it is supposed to work.  

    First of all, Valjean’s profound and life-transforming experience of God’s merciful love came through the actions of a man, the bishop. Valjean was able to experience this man’s love as the love and mercy of God.  How God uses those who hearts are united to His to draw others to Himself!

    Then, in turn, Valjean’s response to God’s love was to love Him by loving others.  A much-beloved line of many is, “To love another person is to see the face of God!” In the countless ways Valjean layed down his life for others, he was also laying down his life for God and in communion with Him in a way he could not have been even in the deepest contemplative prayer. I think of Pope Benedict’s words “love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God; … closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God.” (Deus Caritas Est 16, in reference to 1 John 4:20)

    I find it remarkable that Valjean was able to be so very good even when he experienced so little love from others (until adopting Cosette).  The bishop’s love was the spark that ignited the fire in Valjean’s heart, but it seems to me that the flame was kept alive because Valjean’s life was steeped in prayer.  My sister scoured the book and found that Valjean seemed to always want to have candles and a crucifix close at hand for his dialogues with God.  So it appears that the seemingly endless fountain of love in from his heart found its source in his ongoing frequent prayer.  We are blessed to see the passion and honesty and depth and surrender of that prayer on the screen in Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean.

    • Great insights Mary – well worth reflection.

    • Gloryb2God

      Yes – Mary – that was MY favorite line also – “to love another person is to see the face of God!”  

  • bltpm

    Dan, I agree with you. I had watched Fr. Barron’s review too and loved it. I don’t have the mind, nor understanding to be able to sieve through movies and pick out great, good, and ok scenes and explain it in light of our faith. Iit is great to have someone like Fr.Barron to give key insights. Point out scenes and so on. I know that my experience of watching previously critiqued movies are entirely transformed and elevated to actually be spiritually useful.

  • Glad to hear it, I found a movie gift card we got last year and my wife and I are going to this movie today. I saw it when I was younger in the opera and I was aware it’s a deeply catholic movie. Very much looking forward to seeing it!

    • The funny thing about it is that Hugo was anti-clerical. The good bishop in the movie is really Hugo preaching to the bishops about how they should act. It is ironic that his representation of the clergy turns out to be one of the all time most beautiful displayed on film…

      • Yes it’s amazing he was able to still see the beauty in this kind of action, and that a clergyman could be capable of it. Looking forward to it 🙂

      • Kelly Seppy

         I have had the same brushes with God’s grace as a result of seeing Les Mis on the stage — the first time while I was still in an abusive marriage.
        I have not yet seen the movie, but I have read the book, and am again reading it now.
        It IS funny how Hugo goes to extreme lengths (literally and figuratively) to get across the reader his anti-clericalism, but really underneath, he is still reaching for God. And even “funnier,” how the theme of God’s mercy over -arches the entire work, shining out some of the very points to which Hugo was in opposition. God has used this story to reach so many hearts, and the music! Oh–a slice of heaven.

        Here is my blog post about my experiences with Les MIs, if any care to read it.

        Also, (as though you need my endorsement, haha) I totally concur with the dear soul a few comments down being recommended to Unbound. A great work of mercy and healing.

        God Bless that dear one.


      • Very very powerful. Extremely well done movie! And crucifixes are all over, a convent plays a very prominent role in the movie as does the bishop. Very Catholic in its themes and storyline. Highly recommend!

  • I am going to try to see this with my husband or I will,purchase it and watch it. It sounds so beautifully in highlighting God’s mercy and love. Thank you for sharing.

    • Check back and let us know how it impacted you.

  • depomaha

    This story had a profound effect on me when I first saw it on stage in London many years ago, and several times since in this country. The message in this link is so strong and true. And the whole concept of reunion with loved ones who have gone before makes this story one I re-visit as often as possible. I am Protestant. But one does not have to even be Christian for this message to ring true. Most recently I stood outside a Buddhist temple in Xi’an, China, listening to the monks chant. And I was struck with the understanding that no matter what others may call their creator, we are worshipping in the tradition we have been raised in. And we are not nearly as different as we are the same. Jesus is my Lord and Savior and always will be. When He speaks through a popular movie…what a blessing…as His messages always are…IF we just keep ourselves open to His intervention.

  • Gloryb2God

    I saw the movie and I was deeply moved.  To me, this movie told the story of Our Heavenly Father’s Plan of Salvation.  We see redemption, repentance, and conversion and we watch as Jean Valjean receives God’s grace and lives the remainder of his life working out his salvation here on earth.  We also see in the character Javert the sadness and eventual despair of a man who is trapped in his own warped sense of justice;  a justice that is devoid of God’s mercy. 
    As a side note, I was glad to see prostitution portrayed as the ugly and deeming existence that it is, rather than glamorized by Hollywood as it so often happens (remember Pretty Woman?) .  I am so happy to see a movie of this caliber released  during this Year of Faith.  I pray that many hearts will be touched and opened to receive God’s merciful grace.

  • drkrf

    I’ve seen this movie twice now and both times it has had the tremendous effect on me to make me want to show mercy to others. It’s beautiful to see how a single act of mercy can completely change the course of a man’s life. It made me stop to think how often I may have failed to show mercy to another and what effect that may have had. Having seen the movie the 2nd time during a week in which I was studying in depth the virtues was very powerful. In our society that values justice (making sure I get what’s due me) and is so often short on mercy, it is refreshing to have a movie like this produced by Hollywood. It made me proud to be a member of the Catholic Church and portrayed Catholicism in a beautiful light which is so unexpected from the media these days. No one should miss the opportunity to see this movie. 

    • You make a powerful comment that reflects what it means to have a true reflection of and encounter with mercy. You said that it made you “want to show mercy on others.” Awesome.

  • GHM_52

    “The torment of law without grace”… Wow, what a phrase! I have not seen the film…I agree with your test regarding the value of a film and would add that your test is valid for any human activity. As for the above reproduced phrase, I would say I only need to live in the present world (here in the USA) to begin to understand how a life lived out under the constraintsof a legal system at odds with God’s saving plan can get to be a fine blueprint for torment and anguish.

  • PattywithayKakeS

    This was an awesome movie and I can’t wait to see it again. I love the ending when Jean Valjean is in the Chapel, speaking to his beloved daughter and son in law, both who he loved with such a sacrifical, merciful love, and his daughters mother was present to guide him on his final leg home to heaven.  Wow!  I also thought about the significance of Valjean adopting his daughter, as we all are adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.  I walked away also thinking of Javert’s complete desparation and that he was so adamant on a warped sense of justice, that he did not even come to know God’s mercy, despite Valjeans mercy on him.  How does someone’s heart become so hardened?

    • How does someone’s heart become so hardened? Very easily actually. It begins with one small refusal of God’s grace and leading, and then another, and another and then a self-referencial pride sets in – I am my own standard… The enemy isolates and destroys piece by piece.

  • Gregoria Tavanlar

    I was moved by the merciful act of the priest and wish that we as Catholics could also show that kind of mercy towards others. It is that kind of mercy that God wants us to keep in our heart. I will be more conscious on how to extend that mercy to those who are less fortunate.  When you share the love of God the act resounds to a lot of people.  Valjean received love and thus resolved to be lovable to others.  This is heaven on earth.  On the other hand, if we become too legalistic and rigid about rules we would forget what Jesus is teaching us that the law is made for man and not man for the law.  Javert unfortunately was one of those who could not let go of his perceived righteousness.

    I praise God that Hollywood came out with this kind of movie.  Very human and very divine.

  • Finally saw Les Miserables! Well, okay not the version in movie theaters recently, because I haven’t had time…But the 1998 film with Liam Neeson. My law prof is making us write a paper on it. Thank you for Fr. Barron’s commentary! Law vs Grace Justice vs Mercy Very fitting! 

    How indeed could hearts get so hardened as to not recognize God’s mercy and love! It’s a depressing truth that I see even with those around me. despite everything, we must continue striving to be merciful. especially to those who hurt us the most. Because if no one  shows them what true love is, they will never be able to show it to others. The harder the heart, the greater the need for love. Yet, some people still fail to recognize it or reciprocate…

    “When I have done all that I could and there are hearts I cannot move, Lord grant me hope. that I may be Your heart today.” – Fr. Manoling Francisco SJ

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