Roger Ebert once said that if only one of Charlie Chaplin’s films could be preserved, “City Lights” (1931) must be the one.
With an almost Gospel-like simplicity, it transmits a lot with little, leaving out what we often consider important to reveal only the essential.
The entire movie is worth seeing, but the main elements that you need to know are the following:
- A homeless tramp (Charlie Chaplin) falls in love a girl who sells flowers. He discovers she is blind when she cannot find a dropped flower.
- That evening, the Tramp runs into a drunken millionaire who is attempting suicide on the waterfront. Later on, the drunken millionaire takes the Tramp to his mansion and, after hearing of the girl’s plight, he gives him money for an eye operation for the girl.
- Unfortunately, that night two robbers enter, knock the millionaire out and steal the rest of his money. Afterward, the millionaire can’t remember the Tramp or giving him the money.
- The Tramp narrowly escapes and gives the money to the girl, saying he will be going away for a while. Later, he is arrested. Months later, the Tramp is released and finally meets the girl once more.
Now we get to the final scene, perhaps one of the best in the history of cinema.
Seeing how there are so many elements, emotions, and possible angles to approach this video, I will offer a list of a few:
1. Eye-Opening Love
Are we not all blind like the flower girl? Do we not all cry out like the blind man on the road to Jericho: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”? The question is, whom do we turn to for salvation in our lives?
What’s curious is that earlier in the movie, the Tramp pretended to be a rich millionaire. Thus, after her eyesight was restored, the young girl was hoping to meet her savior, but she expected him to be a wealthy man (don’t we all?). In the end, to her great surprise, he was anything but.
Both in the beginning and the end, the Tramp has little to offer but his love. But we should never underestimate the power of love. For only love can set us free from the bonds of egoism, even when we are locked up in prison!
It is love that bestows the gift of sight to a beautiful girl. Hopefully, it has the same effect on the movie watcher. Anyone of us who watches the movie without wondering about the ways that we too are blind to the reality of love has completely missed the point. Too often we are like the two boys on the street, laughing and deriding at what appears to be weak and indigent. In the end, the only blind and poor fools are them!
2. A Lesson about God’s presence
At the end of Luke’s gospel, we read about how the disciples, disappointed and downcast, were walking towards a village named Emmaus. At that point, Jesus appears, but they don’t recognize him. As they now walk together, Jesus reveals how He has been present throughout history “beginning with Moses and all the prophets”.
Likewise, Christ is often present in our lives, loving and blessing us, and we simply don’t see him. Even when we are looking for him, there are always two key temptations: the first is when we become too focused on our own efforts to find him and we forget to simply look up and witness how He has actually already found us! The second is that we all have an ideal Jesus in our head. While we may not be totally off, many times Jesus appears and works in our lives in ways we would never have expected. While we are looking for the millionaire solution, Jesus is gazing at us with the eyes of a poor, convicted criminal, just out of jail.
Then, when we do encounter Him, like a violent blast of wind, blowing through the halls of our memory, we realize that He has always been there with us! “You?” says the flower girl. To which we can add, It’s you! It’s always been you!
3. God’s Favorite Language is Touch
There was once a leper who said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying “I will; be clean.” This verb touch is in many ways one of the power mysteriously and piercing verbs out of all of Jesus’ actions. Due to his sickness, the leper was in every way “untouchable”. Yet Jesus touches the untouchable. That is, He touches our sin, our weakness, our blindness.
The entire scene of today’s video deals with the drama of recognition. Will she see him as he is walking by? When she sees him, will she recognize who he is? Interestingly, the moment of recognition is not so much one of sight as it is of touch. Blind people recognize by the feel of the face and the texture of the face. She only discovers his true identity the moment she glides her hands along his.
For the observer, we see how the true identity of the person is revealed, once again, in their love. Not a romantic, idealistic love; rather one that has suffered and sacrificed. Those are the hands that gave her hope when she was blind. They felt the frigidness of steel when they were enchained. They are poor hands, dirty and calloused. The are easily mistaken for the hands of a beggar. Yet they are nothing less than the hands of her Savior.
In a world where images and words often trick and fool, touch becomes an eye-opening criterion. Sometimes mystics have had to discern whether an apparition of Jesus was authentic or a trick of the devil. How did they figure it out? The looked at His hands. If they no longer bore the wounds of the cross, the answer was clear.
Likewise, as we read in Matthew 25, on the day of our judgment, we will not be judged by our good intentions. Instead, we will be asked to show our hands. Are these hands that have suffered? Have they sacrificed? Have they loved?
4. God’s love wants free love
The intensity of joy and love transmitted by the Tramp’s gaze the moment it encounters the beloved is simply unforgettable. One of my favorite parts of the scene, however, is when she steps outside of the store, the tramp almost tries to escape. Why would he do that? A more mediocre man would be quick to point out all that he had done for her. The Tramp instead waits until she figures it out on her own. What’s more, he seems to make the task more difficult as he almost runs away.
True love never wants to impose itself on the beloved. Tramp here is interiorly falling head over heels for this girl. He could play the “you owe me” card any moment. Still, he is delicate and profoundly respectful. He isn’t looking for a reward rather for love. Love can only be given by someone who wants to freely. In the end, it is she who steps outside the business and grabs his hand.
Likewise, God’s favorite game (at least in my opinion) is hide-and-go-seek. Just like we did when we were children, sometimes He hides. But He does so with the sole desire that we seek after Him. That is, that we choose freely to love him. The loving seeker wants the beloved to also become a loving seeker. This is the only path towards true love.
For use in your apostolate:
Today’s video bears an impressive number of elements, feelings, and messages in this three-minute clip. As such, I would suggest you show it more than once to the group. Maybe you can show it the first time without any preliminary explanation, then, after explaining, once or twice more. Invite the group to write down what struck them the most each time and discuss how their impression changed with each viewing.