Sunday, April 29, 2007

Film: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas)

Although it is not the Christmas season by any means, we decided to watch this amazing film Joyeux Noël - and I can recommend it unreservedly. It is certainly one of the best World War I films that I have seen, and I am posting about it here because religion plays a pivotal role in the film.

The film is set on Christmas Eve in 1914, and shows the German soldiers of one trench making their private peace with the French and Scottish soldiers in the opposing trench. Each of the characters - a Scottish priest and a young boy from his parish, a French lieutenant and his orderly, a German lieutenant and an opera singer in his unit - are carefully and quickly sketched as the film opens. Each character is unmistakably familiar right from the start, so that you are able to follow their stories right through till the end.

The priest is played by Gary Lewis (so marvelous as the father in Billy Elliott back in 2000). He stands at the center of what happens on the Christmas Eve. He is the one who begins playing the bagpipes which starts the music in the trenches. At first, he plays a song and the Scottish soldiers join in, and then when the German begins singing "Silent Night," he is the one who accompanies the German on the bagpipes. Then, he plays the melody of "Adeste Fideles" on the pipes, and the German tenor continues. The rapprochement between the two sides carries on from there, with extraordinary, unexpected and unintended consequences.

I definitely should note that the German soldier sings Adeste Fideles in Latin, and the Scottish priest conducts the midnight mass in Latin (with all the French, Scottish and German soldiers who are Catholics saying the Latin responses), and when funerals are conducted the next day, he says the "De profundis" over the bodies. Given all the controversy over the return of Tridentine Mass, I thought it was very striking to see Latin used here to call attention to the intercultural role of Latin on that Christmas night in 1914. As the priest later says, "Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren't devout came to warm themselves."

Indeed, not all of the soldiers are Christian. The German lieutenant, as it turns out, is Jewish. With a French wife. And of the three officers, it is the German who comes across as the most complex and heroic, although you would not expect that from his first scenes in the movie. The development of his character was one of the most wonderful aspects of the movie, I thought.

It's a beautiful film. We plan to watch it again at Christmas.

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