The latest film on the terrible fire in the famous cathedral allows you to participate in the fire, from its very first embers to the rescue of the Crown of Thorns.
The film Notre-Dame brûle, or Notre-Dame on Fire, about the fire that swept through the ancient cathedral in Paris, 2019, was recently released in French cinemas. It’s a powerful movie that leads to the odd tear being shed, but most importantly, it’s a story about a cathedral that represents the beauty of the Catholic faith.
The movie was directed by the much-respected Jean-Jacques Annaud, the director of The Name of the Rose and Seven Years in Tibet among other hits, who wanted to faithfully depict the fire itself, the challenges, and the inspiring stories surrounding the tragic event. And having seen the fire first-hand, and reporting on it to our readers, I found the film to be an emotional roller-coaster that left me feeling an enormous sense of awe for the cathedral, the incredible firefighters, and the Catholic faith.
Annaud explained that the story was as true to life as it could possibly be, with meticulous research and interviews with those involved, and footage from the fire itself. All of this was mixed in with some very clever special effects, news reports, and additional filming from other cathedrals in France. He then got the script’s seal of approval from Général Gontier, the commander of the Paris Fire Brigade, who was second-in-command during the extinction of the fire.
What makes the movie so special is that we know the outcome. We’ve read multiple reports about the events of that dreadful evening, the key players, and even the machines used. Yet, I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel as a spectator to the fire, from its initial flames to its extinction, all crammed in to 150 minutes. By the end I was mentally exhausted, but thrilled to have been able to watch it.
Even if you don’t get to see it yourself — the release date hasn’t been announced yet for the United States — here are a few of my takeaways that you might want to consider:
A catalogue of errors
The beginning of the movie introduces us to the events of the day, from the new security guard responsible for signalling any fire alarms, to the frustrated priest having his Mass interrupted (again) for a supposedly false fire alarm. (It’s important to note that the fire alarms needed updating.)
Refreshingly, the movie does not point the finger as to why the fire happened. There are a few scenarios suggested that could have been the cause — all in line with the conclusions of the investigation. Yet, what you realize is that these beautiful ancient churches are actually in need of some very tender loving care. As a very visible testament to the Catholic faith that have stood strong for centuries they are, however, edifices that have faulty wiring, damaged pipes, leaks, areas that are inaccessible, clutter. Despite their strong appearance, we should not take them for granted.
With all the little errors that led up to the enormous fire, there were external factors that also had a huge impact. The fire took place during rush hour — and we know how congested traffic can be in a capital city at the best of times, let alone when people are rushing to get home. This led to the delay in fire trucks arriving to an already very crowded scene.
The inspirational key players
The firefighters who risked their lives as melted lead dripped down off the roof and ancient beams dropped to the floor were more than inspiring. They went out of their way to rescue the thousands of religious relics and works of art in the cathedral. (Although thankfully this task was made a little easier due to the works that had been ongoing at the time of the fire; some pieces had already been moved elsewhere.)
From the film you can also get a sense of how difficult it was for the 400-plus firefighters to actually attack the fire. The painfully narrow spiral stairs that led to the roof made it physically exhausting for the different teams, especially with all their gear. But they didn’t give up. And of course, there was the heroic chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, Jean-Marc Fournier, who not only rescued the Blessed Sacrament but also the Crown of Thorns.
Apart from the emergency services, there was also the notable contribution of those who worked at the cathedral, including its general manager, Laurent Prades, all desperate to get the most important religious relic of them all to safety. And it was the combination of all these scenes that proved so difficult to watch.
The power of the Crown of Thorns
During the Crusades the French liked to collect important religious relics, such as the Crown of Thorns. They managed to obtain this most holy of relics at a price that put their country into huge debt for many years. Yet, during the film we see that this relic was the center of everybody’s attention. We witness the rescue and the subsequent reverence paid to the relic — this was when tears flowed — only to discover it was the replica used for display purposes. (This is when tears flowed again!)
Happily, as we are all aware, the real Crown of Thorns was found, along with the Holy Nail and other important relics, and taken to security. Yet what made this moment so moving in the film was how the rescue took place, and the attitude and reverence of those involved, whether they were Catholic or not. People risked their lives to save something so important to the Catholic faith.
A strange effect from the fire
It might seem strange to see anything positive from the fire that was so destructive. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that those vivid flames were a huge wake-up call. The fire united Christians in the streets who openly prayed and sang in hopes the cathedral would be saved — a sight so rare in secular France. It created an incredible level of solidarity among all religions, from people throughout the world. It made us look to this semi-destroyed cathedral with new eyes.
After the raging fire, a lot of the building remained intact, and notably the symbolic statue of The Virgin of Paris was unharmed and standing tall inside the cathedral.
It felt as if God was willing to sacrifice part of His church to remind us that our faith is under construction. While we may have the foundations in place, we need to make more of an effort to make it strong, and lean on the Blessed Virgin as we venture to do so.
When the movie came to an end there was a ripple of applause from a visibly moved, and pretty exhausted, audience. It’s an action/disaster movie with real meaning, and faith was the hero of the day.