Le hérisson (the hedgehog) is a French movie, based on Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which questions the judgments which we can often make about others without knowing them well.

The story is told through the eyes of Paloma, an 11-year-old girl, who observes the lives of the tenants in an apartment block. Although perhaps rather precocious for a child of her age, her observations sharply portray the superficiality and vanity of those around her. With the help of an old video camera, she begins to film and reflect on many of the attitudes she sees and to question the apparent senselessness of life.

Her attention is soon commanded, in particular, by Renée, the concierge, perhaps because in her she finds a kindred spirit in her discontent with the world. Renée is an older woman, overweight and scruffy-looking, of whom nobody takes any notice and who seems to limit herself to carrying out the simple demands of her job. Renée, however, has a secret: she is an avid reader, a cultured woman of great artistic sensibilities. She is exactly like a hedgehog: comfortable with a spiky appearance which is nothing but a facade whose sole purpose is to hide and protect a sensitive, curious interior.

Paloma perceives, like no-one else, the great difference between Renée and the other tenants. She does so with the help of Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese man who has recently moved into one of the luxury apartments. Ozu, with his observant, unhurried mindset, discovers Renée’s interior and, with the same sensitivity, knows how to help her come out of herself. Refined and courteous, attentive to details, he is able to overcome the barriers and touch the deepest part of Renée’s soul.

It becomes clear that the coarse image projected by Renée is nothing more than a barrier she has built herself, which little by little is brought down by patience, appreciation, and affection. She herself gradually learns to appreciate herself, to value herself and to reflect her own interior beauty in her behavior and appearance. It is particularly interesting to note that she is capable of loving and giving of herself to others in the measure in which she is capable of accepting this interior beauty.

The movie becomes a beautiful lesson in how love and dedication heal deep wounds in a person, and how right love for oneself is fundamental in loving others. It also reminds us how vain it is to judge others by their external appearance, as we so often do. Every person is an authentic mystery and hides a beautiful interior, even when their appearance puts us off a deeper encounter. Knowing how to see beyond the surface is, in every sense, a virtue which both makes us more human and helps those around us to find their own humanity.

Le hérisson contains one further lesson in its disconcerting finale. We haven’t got all the time in the world to find what we seek; we wait too long to come out of ourselves and to help our neighbor, which can frustrate our longings and desires. In any case, when we reach the end of our lives, God wants death to find us advancing towards goodness and love. “What matters isn’t the fact of dying or when you die. It’s what you’re doing at that precise moment,” Paloma reflects at the end of the movie. Walking in the right direction, although it may be at the very last moment of our lives, can make all the difference in eternity.

This article was originally written by Kenneth Pierce and published on our Spanish site.