Avadim Hayinu? Society as seen in Les Miserables

March 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm, by

We all already know why we have to chow down on food that tastes like cardboard, and yes, this does make us all uncomfortable. There is no question that unleavened bread makes our bellies bulge, but does it actually make our hearts expand to feel the meaning of this special holiday? To feel the suffering that our forefathers felt? The same suffering may feel today in different, but no less cruel, ways?

These are complicated times: On the one hand, most of us have the privilege of escaping the woes of the world, and even our own personal crises to the world of Reality, which could not be further than actual reality. On the other hand, we are privileged to know exactly what is happening in the world, due to the social networks that surround our lives.

Another way that is alive and kicking for generations is culture. Art.

In this case, I am going to focus on the art of film.

Lately, the rollicking and sometimes disconcerting musical “Les Miserables” (based on the French classic novel by Victor Hugo) has returned to movie screens.

This musical alludes to several different kinds of slavery, many of which still exist today. Perhaps some of these types of slavery do not afflict the general population, but they are the plight of the unlucky many who live with fear for their very existence.  These kinds of fears cannot be explained to those who have not experienced  them, no matter how much we try through Pesach cleaning, or eating disgusting food and spending an awkward Seder with family. But there are other types of slavery hiding between the lines in this movie, that afflict the entire human race.

Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, who steals a loaf of bread for his nephew and finds himself imprisoned. Here we can see complete, painful, merciless slavery. Poverty which leads to crime, slavery that takes an immeasurable toll.  The conditions the prisoner is kept in are cruel, he is subjected to slave labor and everything is colored by the fact that there are those who have and those who do not and in order to survive, one must be enslaved.

Poverty also leads his lover, Fantine, into the clutches of a phenomenon existing in our own society: Human trafficking for prostitution, chillingly portrayed with the heart-wrenching vocals of Anne Hathaway. There could be no clearer example of slavery in society. This creation gives allows us for a few moments to feel the nausea that women feel daily, doing what they can to survive, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of their children. Slavery does not end with the mere act of rape (don’t kid yourselves, it is not consensual, it is rape), but it extends to what happens around her, living with the knowledge that this is happening, and ongoing trauma.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen are well known for filling each movie with a little laughter and silliness, bringing a unique insanity to every character they play. This helps to lighten the mood a little, to alleviate the horror of some of the scenes. But like in every good literary plot, the conmen always win us over, and there is no question that they are conmen, as they “raise” innocent Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) towards the next kind of slavery: The slavery of children. This means employing children under deplorable conditions for pathetic pay, just so they can put food in their mouths.

One might say, okay, but what do I have to do with this? Well, we can make a difference, a few strokes on the keyboard and we are exposed to these stories, reveal them and can affect them. But again, there is no question that if you have not experienced this kind of slavery, you do not know what it is like.

The movie also shows slavery that affects us all: Another type of slavery which is portrayed in the movie and is no less devastating, is how fragmented our society has become. The movie shows the struggle for French Revolution. During a war, the different camps tear the People apart, inhumanity takes over, leading to merciless bloodshed. Even shedding the blood of children.

Daniel Huttlestone is in my opinion the most impressive actor in the movie – a little boy who tells the story of Gavroche and believes in change, speaking up against slavery and murder.

Unrequited love. Samantha Barks plays Eponine who is madly in love with Marius (Eddy Redmayne), but he is unaware of her love, as he is preoccupied with Cosette. Call me naïve, but I believe that all of us have someone or something that we want and cannot have, which takes up valuable time. These things prey on our minds and enslave our hearts until we are consumed with the suffering in their absence. They make us miss out on what we already have.

Lies. The need to hide, to show others that we are someone else so we can fit in, a some point these shackle us, rendering us unrecognizable, enslaving our identity.

I think that if we sit down to the Seder table and think a bit about Les Miserables, we will learn what is not different on this night, and what we can do to change it!

By Kessem Burston, translated by Timna Burston.

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