Normally at this time I would write an extensive review of my favourite Live Action Film of January, as an addition to all the animated discussion on here. But two big issues arise this month. Firstly, there are three superb, Oscar nominated films all worthy of release: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables. To choose just one of them felt slightly arbitrary. Secondly, if I were to choose one of those as my favourites, it would be the flawed but emotionally explosive musical Les Miserables, but I’ve written about that three or four times already. So instead I decided to look at a theme in cinema at the moment: forgiveness and revenge. This article contains discusses the endings of Les Mis, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained in a slightly spoilery way, but I doubt reading the article will ruin your enjoyment of either.
Love is a word that is thrown around a lot, especially in cinema. Rom-coms proliferate the mainstream market; films full of people declaring or realising their love for someone else when it appears as though they are mostly in love with themselves. Outside of this genre, western cinema is more concerned with the breakdown of love rather than the restorative or redemptive power it can bring. Films that purport to be about love are sometimes not sure whether they are about the love between a man and a woman, or the love of a man for a fine cigar. So when one of the last lines of Les Miserables is “to love another person is to see the face of God,” it could mean just about anything. What makes that film so powerful, however, and causes audiences round the country to burst into tears, is that it is a film that really understands love, or at the very least one kind of it.
Jean Valjean, the hero of the film played by Hugh Jackman, is a criminal, although his crime was merely to steal a loaf of bread. However, this apparently minor transgression is enough to get him convicted by the law, forced to pay the wages of his sin and he is haunted by it even once he has done his time. He cannot escape his past, a slip of yellow paper forever marking him as a criminal. He is persecuted, mocked and left in the cold until he is taken in by a bishop and shown love and forgiveness. This act of mercy transforms his life, as he learns to love and serve others, to be generous and caring and to look out for the downtrodden. He is still pursued by the law, in the guise of policeman Javert, but he has been saved from hatred, and his death at the end of the film leads him to heaven – forgiveness has changed his life, and now he is free from the law forever. The name of the film, Les Miserables, can be translated as ‘The Wretched,’ an initially downbeat title that is given a new meaning in the final song: “For the wretched of the earth / There is a flame that never dies. / Even the darkest night will end / And the sun will rise.” The love that makes you see the face of God is the kind that can give hope to the wretched and can change the life of someone who has been rejected. Forgiveness, it is clear, is the ultimate expression of love.
It is a shame, therefore, that revenge still plays such a huge role in Western cinema today, as film seems to be the place where people can live out revenge fantasies, using the distance between reality and fiction as an excuse for catharsis through violence. You see it in mindless action blockbusters all the time, as some burly gun nut loses one of his team so resolves to complete a mission. But it’s also in far more intelligent cinema, and critically adored director Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with it. Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds were wildly over the top, violent revenge fantasies, and deliberately so. Tarantino loves exploitation films, and his films are snappy, modern homages to their blood splattered history. His latest, Django Unchained, tells exactly the same story, apart from the revenge is by a slave, not a jilted bride or Nazi-hunting Jews. There’s more to the film than revenge, such as Django’s emergence as a hero or the love story where he just wants his wife back. Yet the bloody finale, like Inglourious’ conclusion, is simple wish fulfilment violence that ends with a triumphant Django performing dressage on his horse, a cocky hero with a big grin on his face. It’s the same old story, and doesn’t offer anything to say about revenge, it just enjoys it. It’s ultimately a rather hollow ending, which is fitting for a film about revenge, the most hollow of all pursuits.
Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is prepared to ask far more questions about the nature of revenge. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing film to watch, as it documents a number of different elements in the CIA’s quest to capture the terrorist. Countries are illegally invaded, men and women get shot and, most disturbingly of all, prisoners are tortured and humiliated. In the wake of 9/11, the USA were quick to launch a ‘War on Terror’ – whatever that means – and invaded more than one country to do so. Since then, the public have learned a lot about what happened in this war; we’ve seen photos of inhumane treatment of prisoners, we’ve learnt that at least one of these invasions broke international law. Yet at the same time, the number one target of this war, Osama Bin Laden, has been killed. Kathryn Bigelow’s unflinching, unjudgemental film holds a mirror up to this process and asks whether, in the end, it was all worth it.
The War on Terror is real life evidence that revenge does not get rid of grief, it does not solve problems and it ultimately doesn’t satisfy. Terrorism still exists, and thousands of people – soldiers and civilians alike – have died in this revenge mission. Zero Dark Thirty beautifully captures this problem in its final shot, as Maya, a woman who has dedicated her entire professional life to finding Bin Laden, is asked where she wants to go now. She sits, crying silently, and is unable to answer. It almost seems OK to allow the revenge fantasies in Django Unchained because this story never actually happened, so it’s just a piece of fictional entertainment. Yet that dismissal is almost as glib as the violence in the film. It’s important to question western cinema’s fixation with revenge as a form of fulfilment when the real world proves that, more often than not, it’s just not true. Les Miserables – regardless of how much you enjoyed the film – offers another option, one which is freeing and causes us to do good. It’s about time that we saw more films about forgiveness and less about revenge.