2006-10-05

The Count of Monte Cristo: An Anti-Atheistic Film?

The 2002 film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my all-time favorite movies. While the book itself is one of my favorite pieces of literature, I enjoy the shortened and simplified plot of the film even more than the original storyline. It presents a tale about betrayal, revenge and redemption, with plenty of action, adventure, romance and comedy. Although it hardly affects my enjoyment of the film, I find its generally theistic overtures and its negative portrayal of atheists worthy of comment. Two characters are portrayed as atheists at some point in the film:

Edmond Dantes
At the beginning of the story Dantes is a theist, presumably a Catholic, who is happy with his life. Upon his imprisonment at the Chateau d’If, he prays to God and even continues work on an inscription in the wall begun by a previous inmate which reads, “God will give me justice.” At a moment of despair, Dantes attempts to commit suicide by hanging himself with a piece of cloth, but he relents when he reads the inscription. Eventually, however, he loses his faith in God. After seven years alone, Dantes meets AbbĂ© Faria, who tunneled his way into Dantes’ cell mistakenly thinking he was moving toward the outer wall. When Faria explains that he himself has had only God as company until that moment, Dantes responds, “There is no talk of God in here, priest.” Faria asks about the inscription on the wall, and Dantes explains, “It's faded, just as God has faded from my heart.” Faria then asks what has replaced it and Dantes answers, “Revenge.” Revenge is indeed Dantes’ motive throughout the rest of the film. He strangles Armand Dorleac to death during his escape, he spends three months as a smuggler with Luigi Vampa, he tricks an innocent Albert Mondego into thinking he saved him in order to advance his motives, he entraps Philippe Danglars into committing a crime and being imprisoned, he manages to have J.F. Villefort unknowingly confess his involvement in the murder of his own father and be imprisoned, and he forces a showdown with Fernand Mondego whom he eventually kills in self-defense. Toward the end of the film, Mercedes displays her interest in a new relationship with Dantes, but he asks her not to take away his anger because that is all he has. She tells him, “God has offered us a new beginning. Don't slap His hand away.” He responds, “Can I never escape Him?” They do re-establish their relationship and he feels he has found happiness once more. Finally, at the very end of the film Dantes stands on the edge of a cliff at the Chateau d’If and acknowledges his renewed belief in God and promises to use his enormous fortune only for good from that point forward.

Armand Dorleac
Dorleac is the prison warden of the Chateau d’If, the island prison where Dantes is wrongfully held in solitary confinement for fourteen years. Although we know nothing of his history, Dorleac is portrayed as a cruel and pitiless man who mocks the idea of God. He readily admits to Dantes that he knows that all of the prisoners are innocent because only inmates of which the government is ashamed are sent to his facility. Nevertheless, he treats them viciously, giving them a severe beating on the day of their arrival and on the anniversary of their arrival each year. Before Dantes’ first beating, Dorleac says to him, “If you're thinking to yourself just now, ‘Why me, O God?’ the answer is God has nothing to do with it. In fact, God is never in France this time of year.” When Dantes counters, “God has everything to do with it. He's everywhere. He sees everything,” Dorleac responds, “All right. Let's make a bargain, shall we? You ask God for help and the moment he shows up, I'll stop.” Additionally, Dorleac scoffs at the inscription in Dantes’ cell while acquainting him with it. As mentioned above, he is murdered by Dantes during his escape.

Misconceptions and Stereotypes Reinforced

  • Atheists really do believe in God. Atheists are just angry at God. Dantes believes in God when he is happy, doesn't believe in God when he is miserable and angry, and believes in God once more when he is happy again. He references his desire to “escape” God to Mercedes.
  • Atheists are evil people. Dantes commits many violent, deceitful and vengeful acts only during the time he claims not to believe in God. Dorleac is a cruel man who beats the inmates in his prison.
  • People usually get what they deserve in the end. Dantes and Mercedes, who were both innocent of any misdeeds prior to Dantes’ imprisonment, end up happy together with their son and an enormous unearned fortune. Dorleac, Danglars, Villefort, and Fernand Mondego end up either imprisoned or dead. Faria dies in prison, but he was very old and Dantes’ return to God vindicates his opinion in the end.
Additional Comments
  • Both implied sexual encounters between Dantes and Mercedes within the film would be considered mortal sins. The first sexual encounter on the beach near the beginning of the film was fornication. According to Catholic dogma, it's sinful even though they were soon to be married. The second sexual encounter is adultery because Mercedes is still married to Fernand at the time. Again, according to Catholic dogma, it's very sinful. I also find it very odd that lying in bed after the adulterous act, Dantes stares at a painting on the ceiling of the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven without feeling awkward.
  • Dantes’ repentance is false. The audience is expected to be sympathetic to Dantes’ vengeance, especially given that Dantes would have be killed if he didn't join the band of smugglers, that Danglars and Villefort were very rightfully imprisoned, that the murder of Dorleac may have been necessary to escape, and that Fernand Mondego was eventually killed in self-defense after being allowed to flee. The audience is expected at the end of the film, however, to consider them wrong when Dantes repents of them. This presents us with a dilemma which the film does not resolve in its attempt to portray theism in a positive light: If the acts were justified, then repentance is unnecessary and thus a moral charade. If the acts were not justified, then Dantes is wrong to enjoy their fruits. He is happy with his situation, having regained his beloved, the son he didn't know he had, and an unimaginable fortune. It's simply too convenient to get what you want by sinning, repent after have gotten it, yet keep it without a twinge of conscience. One cannot expect him to reject Mercedes and Albert now, but it does not seem unreasonable that he should donate the remaining Spada treasure to charity which, while not unjustly obtained, was completely unearned, and undertake some serious repentance.
As I mentioned at the beginning, these concerns adversely don't affect my enjoyment of the film, which tells a very captivating story.

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3 comments:

Bill said...

I haven't read this book. I did read the Three Musketeers, which I felt was a very good book. Dumas in general seems quite neutral with respect to religion. I think like many in the past, those who are depended upon for their wisdom of faith are often hypocritical, however he doesn't belittle religion itself. Although, there is a bit of mockery with the theological discussion one of the musketeers was having with the Jesuits during his attempted entry into the priesthood.

On another note, congratulations on two years of living life with a realistic perspective. It's good that you had a friend to help along the way. I have a friend who converted from atheism to Christianity shortly after her best friend did the same. While I disagree with her views, having a friend along the way is comforting.

Secular Planet said...

Thanks for the comments. It's been almost twelve years since I read the novel, but I really don't believe the book was as theistic in tone.

Thank you also for your congratulations. My friend was very helpful during my deconversion, especially since I hadn't even joined a message board at that point.

Chris said...

I don't believe the film portrays any sort of anti-atheistic message, in my opinion. True there are characters that mention God and the priest in the cell next to Dantes certainly is overtly religious, but Dantes' struggle to believe in a God that would allow something like this to happen to him is not meant to be taken as a Christian who becomes a revenge obsessed atheist and then repents in the end. I think it is more likely that Dantes never truly left his faith and simply turned away from it for a period, or that he simply chose only to believe in a God when it suited him. His lack of faith throughout most of the film plays a minor role in the plot and does not seem to be stereotyping atheists at all. There are many bad characters in films and the majority do not confess any beliefs in a deity. This does not make them "evil atheists"