Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Horseman on the Roof (Le Hussard sur le Toit) -- Fear, honor and love

Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1995.

A huge-budget French production, this lavish movie beautifully shows a subtle romance against a stunning backdrop of lush French countryside. Winning awards for cinematography it is the kind of movie that makes us want to vacation in France. It also pictures love between two people without the need for physical intimacy.

The Horseman on the Roof is set in Provence, in southern France, in the 1830s. Two contextual themes provide a framework for the plot: political persecution and cholera epidemic. Through the first of these the two heroes, Angelo Pardi (Olivier Martinez) and Pauline de Théus (Juliette Binoche, Blue), meet and realize that their only chance for survival from the cholera is each other.

In the historical context, Austria was controlling Italy and many Italians had fled to France to avoid imprisonment or death. Angelo was one of these Italians. Swarthy and handsone, he was a cavalryman, a hussar or horseman. His mother had bought him an officership as a colonel, and he fit the mold of a noble gentleman. In France, he and other exiles were raising support for their revolution back home.

When Austrian secret police track him down in Aix, a small French town, Angelo has to flee on horseback at a moment's notice. Galloping through fields of knee-high, yellow wheat, he evades death. But in fleeing he runs headlong into death in the village he enters. Cholera has ravaged the inhabitants. Thirsty, Angelo stops at the fountain in the next village to refresh himself, a mistake he realizes immediately. The villagers descend on him like the carrion-eating crows that are ubiquitous. Fearful of the dreaded cholera, these people think Angelo is a fountain-poisoner come to infect their water-source.

This early scene highlights the nature of fear in humanity. When we do not understand something, such as the cause of a disease, we often project our fears onto a scapegoat. This allows us to deal with our pent-up frustration and anxiety, even if it actually accomplishes nothing. The scapegoat becomes the blame-carrier for us. Just as in the Old Testament the actual scapegoat became a symbolic carrier of sin away from the Israelite's camp, so a person like Angelo can become a symbol. Fear is a primal emotion. John tells us in his epistle, "Perfect love drives out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18). Only in accepting and demonstrating this love can we overcome our fears. When we give into them, as the mob did here, chaos and anarchy take over.
Angelo does escape and survives by taking to the roof, becoming the titular horseman on the roof. When he drops into an attic, it is the temporary residence of Pauline. Living alone, her aunts having fled the disease earlier, he acts honorably to her. With no one to protect her, Angelo could have had his way with the gorgeous woman but he had been taught how to treat a lady. The chivalry and respect he shows her is surprising and refreshing. Pleasing, indeed, to see honor in a hero.

When the town is evacuated by the French army, they are separated only to be reunited later. Together, they successfully escape the blockade of the area on horseback. Although they have separate intentions, he to return to Italy and she to find her missing husband, Angelo feels the urge to protect her. But when she discovers her husband is likely dead, she loses hope and leaves Angelo. Being taken into quarantine by the army, she is ready to give up on life. But Angelo is not ready to give up on her. At the risk of his own life, he voluntarily gives himself up to be with her in the quarantine prison alongside the other hundreds of possibly infected people.

Angelo is a type of Christ here. He reached out and touched cholera victims, trying to save them. Jesus ministered to the despised, the marginalized, too. He touched the untouchable, the lepers who were cast out of society to live lives alone. Jesus healed those lepers who came to him with faith (Lk. 5:13).

Moreover, Angelo was willing to sacrifice himself to save Pauline's life. With cholera all around, he went back for her. What selfless love Angelo had for Pauline. Jesus did this for us. When were dead in sin and enemies of God, Jesus left the place he had alongside the Father and came to earth to sacrifice himself for us (Col. 2:13). He lived a perfect life and died a perfect death. This death was substitutionary as he paid the price of our sins in himself. What great love Jesus had for us!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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