The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1997, Cast: Richard Harris as Claude Frollo, Salma Hayek as Esmeralda and Mandy Patinkinas Quasimodo
It is, by all accounts, a fairytale.
Quasimodo, the deformed man, falls in love with Esmeralda, the impossibly beautiful Gypsy girl. Strangely enough, she sees in him the person he longs to be – looks past the deformities – and cares for him…deeply.
Peter Medak directed this movie way back in 1997, based on Victor Hugo’s book, written in 1831. That, most of you will know, is a full three decades before he wrote Les Misrables.
Of all the dialogue in the film, the following is particularly striking:
Hunchback: What does Esmeralda mean?
She: It means emerald. What does Quasimodo mean?
Hunchback: Almost-me. Snorts. It’s my private joke.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame must rate as one of the most memorable stories ever told. (Yes, I know, there are many – but stay with me on this one) It’s the story of an impossible love, predictable death, and a good ending with a tear, a smile and a wistful look.
So why dig it up today?
South Africa is the jewel of the continent – the emerald – admired by many. She’s beautiful, alluring, inviting, sexy, dangerous, loyal, warm, loving…and dangerous. Many men (and women) have tried to conquer her, with predicatble results. South Africa is a Gypsy, a wild one, making up her story as she goes along. She surrenders to no-one; at least not if you want her for her own sake. However, if you respect her; revere her beauty without defiling it; she will turn to you and open her arms. And even if you’re not the perfect person and even riddled with faults, she’ll see the genuine desire to create beauty.
Of all African countries (I know, I know…but once again go with the argument, will you?) South Africa is the most desirable. We have Nature, Animals, even…people. They have the potential to be, as a collective, great. Best in the world, even though it’s not a competition. Nowhere in the world exists a mix such as ours. Nowhere…
What’s wrong with the picture?
He’s the one staying in the cathedral; the deformed, ugly, deaf attendant who wishes he was normal, like everybody else. Against him are stacked the odds: the Church, the restless population, the untrustworthy bureaucracy. Still, even though physically and even mentally challenged, he recognises beauty when he sees it. That’s us, if you haven’t unraveled the metaphor yet.
But there was a man. Maybe there were several. But today we remember Nelson Mandela. He wasn’t a saint, although the world would view him as such. He was a man, like many others. He made mistakes. Went to jail, preached violence for a while. But during the last two decades of his life, he did something extraordinary: he gave the country hope. Despite the deformities of the past, he rose to become a beacon of forgiveness and peace. Look past the critics, and discover a man who would get up from the formal dinner table and go to the kitchen to thank the staff for their hard work. He was comfortable with artist and diplomat alike; consorted as easily with common folk and kings.
No matter what your political ideology might be, he didn’t create an obstacle because you were ‘different’. He had a way of cutting through the red tape, addressing the Queen as ‘Elizabeth’ as easily as conversing to anonymous waiters at his table. In the end, his respect for people won the day.
He was, in short, special. Despite his drawbacks, he exhibited a singular gift: he saw the beauty in Africa and spent his life pursuing it. Some may disagree, but that is the nature of any fairytale: it has an almost surreal aura attached to it.
Of course the story ends with his death. Victor Hugo wrote it like that. But even in his demise, the beauty he discovered lives on.
And today, while so many people gather to pay their last respects for his sacrifice, we must decide how we’re going to let the story continue. Shall we choose to follow his dream, enlighten the masses (remember the printing presses Claude Frollo wanted to be destroyed) and enhance Africa’s beauty…or be so intent on finding fault with the past that we destroy the future?
Let us choose correctly.
Let us mourn the passing of a great man – and then to follow the path to beauty. Let us pray that the leaders of today – at last – will see what Madiba saw when he walked out of that prison.
We owe Africa that, don’t we?
Otherwise we’d be almost-me’s. And that’s not a private joke.