Les Miserables, which won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy earlier this week, is easily the most explicitly religious movie I've seen in a long time. Characters speak of Lucifer's fall, the never-ending road to Calvary, beggars at the feast and many other Biblical references. More generally, the conflict between the two main characters - Jean Valjean and Javert - resembles a problem central to Christian morality: the tension between mercy and the law.
The movie begins with the parole of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a laborer who once stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. Even after serving 19 years, Valjean is informed by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) that he is not really free. He is branded a thief and an ex-convict, preventing him from finding honest work. He eventually steals silver from a church and is caught with it, but the bishop lies, saying that he gave the silver to Valjean, effectively saving him from another long prison term.
This moment of mercy by the bishop galvanizes Valjean: it reminds him that he is not just a thief, but a man with a soul, and so he takes the silver to become an honest businessman. He also tears up the identity papers labeling him as a convict and breaks parole. Javert sees this deception as a criminal act and commits himself to putting Valjean in prison again.
Javert does not hate Valjean or even particularly dislike him, but he cannot forgive him. He is the law, and that makes mercy impossible. As Javert sings:
And if you fall as Lucifer fell, you fall in flame.
And so it has been, and so it is written on the doorway to paradise,
that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.
According to Javert, we are all capable of following the law, and when we don't, punishment follows. There is nothing unfair in this. When Valjean complains that he only stole a loaf of bread, Javert shares a surprising part of his own history: that he was born inside a jail but lived a good life according to the law and became an honored policeman. If he can do it, Javert reasons, anyone can – and they deserve punishment when they can't meet that standard.
Jesus, however, paints a very different picture. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, He tells of a man who had a large debt forgiven, but then refused to forget a small debt another man owed him. Jesus uses this story to show why we must forgive those who sin against us: because God has forgiven us our own sins, we should be gracious when people sin against us, and forgive them. The fact that we once needed mercy compels us to act mercifully to others.
This grace, of course, does not give Valjean the freedom to "go on sinning so that grace may increase." Even while Javert's law held authority over him, Valjean found other duties that he could fulfill: his promise to the bishop to become an honest man and his promise to the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to raise her child well. Valjean needs liberation from Javert's exacting justice, but he also must do what he can to live a good life judged by a better law.