The popularity of The Count of Monte Cristo over its nearly two centuries means that it’s been adapted and developed many times. The outline of this review was written for a Film and Theology event and targets the 2002 film version and does contain spoilers. Be warned!
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Justice is a tough concept to nail down, but everybody sure seems to want it. Well, want it for someone else.
Over the last few months, events in the real world have conspired to place “justice” on everyone’s mind. And while it means different things to different people, it really can’t afford to be an arbitrary concept; whether we’re discussing men of a certain race being shot by police officers of a different race, or the rights of certain people to fly certain flags where they want them flown, or even which person receives a sporting award, we have to understand what justice really means. And a great way we can explore justice is through the swashbuckling 2002 action-revenge film The Count of Monte Cristo.
Bitterness and Betrayal
Everything starts out great for Edmond Dantes (played by a pre-Passion Jim Caviezel). He and his fiancee are deeply in love, he works with his best friend, and he’s just been given a promotion: the prestigious position of captain aboard his trading vessel. Much like many stories of betrayal begin, Dantes has everything – and his friend Mondego (played by a pre-King’s Speech Guy Pearce) has nothing.
Well, that’s not true. Mondego has far from nothing. A rich merchant’s son, Mondego has money and influence; he lives in the lap of luxury, and yet is envious of his poor friend Dantes (largely because of Dantes’ fiancee, Mercedes). Overcome by this anger, Mondego frames Dantes for betraying France and siding with the exiled Napoleon; the local magistrate is prepared to let him go, but due to the treachery of the magistrate’s family, changes his mind and sends Dantes to the notoriously deadly prison Chateau d’If.
All of this echoes a story in the Bible; the account of Joseph, in Genesis 37 through 50. The favored son of Jacob, Joseph has a truly wonderful life. He has the ear of his father, who also gives him great gifts. But his devious brothers, thinking they are being wronged, conspire a plot to kidnap and sell Joseph to a band of slave traders. They do, and while Joseph initially gains favor with his Egyptian employer, Potiphar, a member of his family lies about Joseph and has him sent to prison.
While you’re unlikely in the modern western world to be sold into slavery or jailed wrongly, the stories of Dantes and Joseph remind us that there is evil and betrayal in the world, and sometimes it will affect you. You will face troubles and tribulation on Earth; there’s no escaping it. Anyone who tries to suggest that this won’t happen to you is, frankly, not telling the truth. The Bible doesn’t tell us that it might happen, but that it will happen, and any experience on this planet can confirm that.
Favor and Fortune
Imprisoned and despondent, Dantes goes slightly mad in the prison, etching the words “God Will Give Me Justice” in the stone wall of his cell early in his stay before losing his faith in God entirely. But Dantes finds hope in an old man named Abbe Faria, a priest and former member of Napoleon’s army (played by a pre-Harry Potter Richard Harris).
Faria not only teaches him to read and trains him in swordfighting, he also gives the young man the map to a great treasure that will make Dantes wealthy beyond his greatest imagination. But before they can escape and search for the treasure, Faria is mortally wounded.
He gives Dantes the map, insisting that he only use the treasure for good; Dantes objects, insisting that he will surely use it for his revenge. But Faria uses his last words to ominously warn him “do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence.” And in a scene very reminiscent of Christ’s work on the cross, Faria’s death secures Dantes’ life and freedom; he switches places with the man’s corpse and is taken from the prison by the warden himself.
Joseph’s misadventures after he was thrown into prison by Potiphar also brought him favor with his fellow prisoners, who swore that they would commend him to the Pharaoh when they returned to their jobs as his servants. Eventually, Joseph was elevated to a position of authority, wealth and influence in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh in power.
Our world is full of tribulation. But through God’s faithfulness we, as Christians, have been given some measure of favor. Sometimes it’s as vast as being blessed with a nation in which we can worship freely; other times, it is simply being allowed to speak a few words before the firing squad kills us for our faith. But whatever that favor is, we must consider what we will do with it. Will we give glory to God with it, or will we seek our own self-interests? Will we pursue vengeance or hatred, or will we pursue love and peace?
Revenge and Reconciliation
After Dantes discovers the treasure, he disregards his new friend Jacopo’s advice to simply use the money to live well and forget about those who wronged him. The old priest’s warning against revenge is all but forgotten; Dantes returns to France and uses his new-found wealth to set himself up as a count and set in motion the machinations that will bring him his vengeance on his enemies.
Even his inscription that “God Will Give Me Justice” is ignored as he sets elaborate traps and ruses, stages kidnappings and rescues, and even throws a lavish party in hopes of bringing those he hates most to heights from which he will throw them. “Death is too good for them,” he says; “They must suffer as I have suffered.” And in planning the suffering of others, he neglects what will make him happiest.
Consumed by hatred, he’s become a different man than the valiant seaman who was sent to Chateau d’If thirteen years earlier. “I am not that man,” he insists to Mercedes when she asks about the dead man she loved so much. And when she asks him to abandon his quest for revenge, he is frustrated when she implores him to recognize God’s hand. “God…can I never escape Him?” Of course he cannot, but for all of his pursuit of justice and revenge, he finds himself ever less satisfied, until he finally says “if you ever loved me, don’t rob me of my hate. It’s all I have.”
And the spiral would have continued forever, but for his discovery – right as he’s about to have his final, sweetest revenge on his betrayer – that he has a son. With a moment, the man he was – grown by his time in prison, but still noble and honorable – comes rushing back to him. He has a family. And in his love, he finally finds peace.
But at the same turning point where Dantes chose to seek revenge, Joseph sought reconciliation with his brothers. Instead of traps and machinations, Joseph gave his betrayers food amid a famine and welcomed them to live with him. Through Joseph’s act, the entire nation of Israel was saved.
Are you holding on to hate? Hate doesn’t satisfy. It drives you away from those you love, and from God Himself; it turns you against the reality that He would have for you. Abbe Faria reminds us, before his death, of God’s words in Deuteronomy 32:35: “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.” More than just a warning against seeking revenge, God promises here that those who have wronged you won’t just “get away with it.” Their sins will be dealt with, He assures; either on Earth, in hell, or on the Cross of Jesus Christ. Reconciliation and love are the only ways to true happiness.
Dantes spent thirteen years in a terrible prison trying to earn his salvation by digging out, but only finally escapes by switching places with another. And he not only gets his freedom through this, but a grander gift than he could ever have dreamed of – he becomes richer than anyone can imagine.
You’ve been shown a great deal of favor despite your inabilities, too. When Christ died, he sacrificed Himself, putting Himself in our place so that we could put ourselves in His place and escape. We escape the terrible prison we built in our sin; we escape the coming wrath of God. And He gave us the Holy Spirit, who leads us to a great and unbelievable treasure.
Will you seek revenge? Or will you pursue joy in God’s adventure?
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