Based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Boheme (which was directed by Toscanini), Rent is the film version of the award-winning Broadway rock opera. It covers about a year in the life of a group of friends living a bohemian life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and trying to make it as actors, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, and in one case, a teacher.
As the title indicates, the friends have to find a way to pay the rent to a former friend, Benny, (Taye Diggs) who went into business with the landlords. He offers free rent to Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal) if they will convince Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark’s former girl friend who left him for a lady lawyer) not to stage a protest against the landlords.
It’s Christmas and cold outside. Collins (Jesse L. Martin, Law & Order) comes to visit Mark and Roger but gets mugged in the street. He is found and cared for by Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). They go off to a Life Support group for people with AIDS.
Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is an exotic dancer and drug addict who lives downstairs from Mark and Roger. When Mark goes out that night, Mimi comes up the fire escape to ask Roger to light her candle because all the electricity to the building has been shut off because no one has paid their rent. Roger is attracted at first, but sorrow at losing his former girl friend to drugs, makes him turn away from Mimi.
Over the course of 525 948 minutes in a year (the best song I thought), these friends live and die, love and run from love, experience loyalty and disloyalty, and survive, indeed, find hope, even if they don’t want to be anything other than bohemians anyway.
Some critics have said there is a gay subtext to the film, but I don’t agree. The film (musical) is about this eclectic group of gays and straights who are friends, who live for today with no regrets. There is nothing “sub” about it.
The morality of the story is inconsistent because it exists and functions in a postmodern moral universe. One message the story communicates is: live a gay lifestyle, consequences don’t matter because of love, no regrets, live for today. At the same time it has a strong anti-drug message and those consequences do matter to the characters (both behaviors are life-threatening, so why the difference?). Friendship is the one bond that can never be broken for the friends – as it is for many people in our culture today. The story seems to want us to accept a gay lifestyle as normal, and this is a challenge to Christian belief.
I think Rent is an artistic experiment for family-friendly director Chris Columbus, and he succeeds quite well in a new genre for him. Rent is not a story, or film, that everyone will be comfortable with because it’s about loneliness, life on the street, accepting a homosexual lifestyle as normal (if it were only about accepting gay people that would be different but in this post-modern moral universe, it is not possible to reject the lifestyle without rejecting the person), and it’s gritty and dark. But it is a human story, and can evoke pathos, compassion, and empathy from the audience because it’s about what some people have to do to survive, and about others who choose to survive this way.
So I asked myself: what would Jesus do if he met this group of characters? There is no doubt that they would welcome Jesus among them and that he would stop and share a meal with them. I think he would then begin a conversation with them, and invite them to follow him – an invitation he extends to all of us, everyday.