Friday, August 5, 2011

"A Tale of Two Cities" and the Paradox of Sacrificial Love

My sons and I returned home last night from a long, wonderful day trip to New York State to see my parents, my brother and his family. My husband and I settled in to watch a movie: "A Tale of Two Cities," a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production from 1935. The film, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic tale, is the story of men and women who become caught up in the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution.

If you are expecting instant payback for your time, this is not the movie for you. The film builds its characters and its suspenseful plot methodically. Be patient. By the end of the movie, I promise you will be on the edge of your sofas. The movie's sensibility is profoundly Christian and seeks to answer the question: What is one's purpose in life?

It's helpful to know a smidgeon of European history to appreciate this movie. The story begins when a young lady, Lucie, discovers her father, whom she had long believed to be dead, is being held prisoner in the Bastille, the eight-towered Parisian prison where common criminals were held, along with people imprisoned for religious or political purposes. She travels to Paris to free him.

On her journey home with her father to London, Lucie meets and eventually falls in love with a young Frenchman, who, unbeknownst to her, is a member of the French aristocracy. Later, another man falls in love with her too: a drunken attorney who successfully manages to have her now-husband acquitted on false treason charges in France.

This movie's style is reminiscent of the silent films of the 1920s. At a few moments, the music feels more important than the dialogue. The movie's theme song is "Oh Come All Ye Faithful." It is sung at a Christmas church service and then the hymn returns at various points in the movie. Another silent-era feature of this movie are title cards that advance the plot.

Well beyond the exploring politics of revolution, the questions "A Tale of Two Cities" asks are existential. Do we live so that our lives make a difference in the lives of others? If the dreams we have for our lives do not materialize, can we find meaning in the lives we are leading? The character who struggles most with this question is Sydney Carton, the dissolute, never-married lawyer.

Throughout the movie, Carton is asking a question I think we all ask ourselves: What is my purpose? He asks an older man: "Tell me, if you looked back on that long life and saw that you had gained neither love, gratitude nor respect of any human being... it would be a bitter reflection, wouldn't it?

I don't want to spoil the movie by telling you every twist and turn of the plot. But I will say that, in the end, Sydney Carton encounters his destiny. He realizes the truth of the hypothesis that risking one's life in sacrificial love is the greatest gift possible.

The movie's final scene is the guillotine. Paradoxically, this scene inspires and uplifts. 

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