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From Lent to Easter

I have never been very keen on “Disney” films and for that reason I’ll admit that there are many of them I have never seen.


In the days of small, local cinemas before the multiplexes and multi-screens of today, crafty film distributors – much as they still do today I imagine – tailored their programming to coincide with holiday periods: come children’s school holidays, particularly during the longer summer break, and you could guarantee that a Disney film would make an appearance. The individual films were not annual in appearance but more generational; it would take several years of re-screenings for someone to have seen all the then available films.


I remember those final days of the summer holidays during the mid-1970s and the last big treat before the return to school; the visits to see “The Jungle Book”, “The Sword in the Stone”, “Pinocchio”, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, “Mary Poppins” – all still comparatively recent films, perhaps having been showing for only ten or fifteen years at the time. For those first three listed, I disliked seeing how someone else imagined a story I had already heard or read for myself with my own images fixed in my head; for the last two, I couldn’t bear the mix of live-action and animation, it made no sense to me at all.


And that’s really where my interest in Disney films, such as it was, stopped.


So talk of Disney Princesses is another language; the arrival of the Disney Store in shopping centres, another world; and Disneyland or Disney World are certainly not in my top ten holiday destinations, “bucket list” or otherwise.


* * * * *


When I was first ordained, I remember standing in a cassock greeting people after Sunday Mass including a couple with a young child who, when I said hello, promptly burst into tears and pointing at me, screamed “Frollo! Frollo! Frollo!” Despite the parents’ embarrassment at their daughter’s behaviour it meant nothing to me. Later at lunch, recounting the story to the parish sisters and other clergy seated at table, one of the sisters laughed and said, “I have something for you”. Later that day she came in with a video of the Disney film version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Ugh, I thought, another cartoon! Seeing the title did dredge up the forgotten connection to Victor Hugo and his somewhat loathsome and morally questionable antagonist Monseigneur Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame. What on earth could that child know about Claude Frollo?


Having dutifully sat and watched the video with one of the retired clergy in the house (who, I might add, fell asleep early on, caused either by the soporific effect of the film or a well filled stomach after a substantial Sunday lunch), I was rather shocked at the general content of the film and wondered whether the child was really of a suitable age to watch the film. The video cover indicated that it was rated PG.


What struck me more than anything else (this is the priest in me speaking now but the impression back then has grown only stronger over time) was the powerful portrayal of sin and temptation. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite so strong in a “children’s” film before or since, and it must surely rank as one of the darkest of the Disney films, or are all of the more modern ones in similar vein? Arguably, I suppose any films sourcing a storyline from the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault will be equally dark.


Just for a moment consider the lyrics of the song “Hellfire” from the film sung by the character Frollo who, in the film has been modified from Hugo’s original and transformed from cleric into both judge and Minister of Justice:


ARCHDEACON & PRIESTS:

Confiteor Deo omnipotenti

(I confess to God almighty)

Beatae Mariae semper Virgini

(To blessed Mary ever Virgin)

Beato Michaeli archangelo

(To the blessed archangel Michael)

Sanctis apostolis omnibus sanctis

(To the holy apostles, to all the saints)


FROLLO:

Beata Maria

You know I am a righteous man

Of my virtue I am justly proud

PRIESTS:

Et tibi Pater (And to you, Father)

FROLLO:

Beata Maria

You know I'm so much purer than

The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd

PRIESTS:

Quia peccavi nimis (That I have sinned)

FROLLO:

Then tell me, Maria

Why I see her dancing there

Why her smold'ring eyes still scorch my soul

PRIESTS:

Cogitatione (In thought)

FROLLO:

I feel her, I see her

The sun caught in her raven hair

Is blazing in me out of all control

PRIESTS:

Verbo et opere (In word and deed)

FROLLO:

Like fire

Hellfire

This fire in my skin

This burning

Desire Is turning me to sin

It's not my fault

Mea culpa (Through my fault)

I'm not to blame

Mea culpa (Through my fault)

It is the gypsy girl

The witch who sent this flame

Mea maxima culpa (Through my most grievous fault)

It's not my fault

Mea culpa (Through my fault)

If in God's plan

Mea culpa (Through my fault)

He made the devil so much

Stronger than a man

Mea maxima culpa (Through my most grievous fault)

Protect me, Maria

Don't let the siren cast her spell

Don't let her fire sear my flesh and bone

Destroy Esmeralda

And let her taste the fires of Hell!

Or else let her be mine and mine alone


(song pauses, guard knocks on the door)

GUARD:

Minister Frollo, the gypsy has escaped.

FROLLO:

(speaking) What?

GUARD:

She's nowhere in the cathedral.

She's gone.

FROLLO:

But how? I ... Never mind. Get out, you idiot! I'll find her!

I'll find her if I have to burn down all of Paris!


(song resumes)

Hellfire Dark fire

Now gypsy, it's your turn

Choose me or

Your pyre

Be mine or you will burn


Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

God have mercy on her

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

God have mercy on me

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

But she will be mine

Or she will burn!


Self-justification, judgement of others, sin, temptation, lust, desire, demonic imagery with fiery-eyed statues, tyranny, social injustice, social isolation, lack of inclusion, maltreatment of those who are different from the norm whether socially or physically, abuse of power … the list goes on and on. It can certainly serve as a powerful meditation for Lent.


I know that certain things like pantomime (yes, you guessed, I’m no fan of those either I’m afraid) have a tradition of including jokes, references or double entendres that are unlikely to be picked up on by children but are instead targeted at adults; clearly this film is in similar vein, yet the portrayal of obsessive desire and the lengths one may go to achieve it remains – if not in the viewing, then in the reading of those lyrics – incredibly visceral.


I confess to feeling rather mortified after watching the film and thinking of the child’s reaction to me. The parish sisters thought the whole thing hilarious. Of course they would! I consoled myself with the fact that she had reacted to the black cassock rather than having prescience as to any possible character flaws.


* * * * *


Although we may like to be scared by films and stories, challenged by them, even changed by them, we appreciate a happy ending, the final resolution that makes us feel things come good in the end. Even this dark Disney film opts for a more wholesome ending than in the original novel. In the film the villain dies, the heroine is rescued, the outcast becomes the hero, some sort of “justice” is realised.


As Lent resolves into Holy Week, as Holy Week resolves into Easter, and Easter into the season of Resurrection, we too know the end of the story.


We know the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We know the message of Easter. We know the Lord is risen. We know the Lord is alive. We know that he has conquered sin and death. We know that we are loved by God. Let us remember not the story but the truth both of who we are, and who we are called to be: we are an Easter People and Alleluia! is our song.


Happy Easter!


Fr Alistair


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