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(LifeSiteNews) —Taking advantage of France’s “window of freedom” when it is once again possible to go to a cinema without a vaccine pass and a mask, I went to see the new French blockbuster – and no, that is not a contradiction in terms! – about the fire that burned the roof and destroyed the spire of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, three years ago. 

Notre Dame brûle (“Notre Dame is burning”) is an hour-by-hour reconstruction of the events that took place from Monday morning, April 15, 2019, until the next morning, when the sacred building, though bruised and exhausted, emerged victorious from its trial, still standing firmly in the heart of the city over which it has watched for 850 years. 

Would the film rise to the occasion, I wondered. Would it go deeper than a spectacular display of a catastrophe whose images are burned into so many imaginations? The film’s director, after all, is not a believer. Beyond his personal affection for the cathedral and for places of prayer generally, Jean-Jacques Annaud is a religious sceptic and not particularly known for adding a spiritual dimension to the films he’s directed. These include Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, The Bear, The Lover, Seven Years in Tibet, Two Brothers 

But I came away from Notre Dame brûle – and its 110 minutes (they seemed very short) packed with anguish, dismay, hope and fear, admiration and excitement – with the feeling that the cathedral’s survival was no less than a miracle. It was a miracle obtained both by the heroism of a handful of firefighters and the faith and imploring of so many ordinary people who prayed while Notre Dame burned. The rescue of the consecrated Hosts as well as the relics of the Passion of Our Lord while the fire raged were also beautifully portrayed. 

Annaud hired no stars to play the role of the very real people whose adventures he fictionally described with great regard for what actually happened on that fateful Monday of Holy Week. He explained that Notre Dame itself was the “star” of his movie, and so it is. The cathedral appears in the film as a beloved landmark that is more than stone and art, however magnificent. 

Some critics in France have even deplored this, complaining that the film lacks the sensations and suspense we have come to expect from disaster movies. But in rejecting grandiloquence, instead focusing on what really happened, striving to reproduce the calm, sober approach of real firemen (and women!) gritting their teeth and aiming for efficiency beyond their own fears and feelings, Annaud has produced something very convincing. 

Other critics regretted that Annaud does not even pose the question of a possible criminal act. Was the fire in Notre Dame’s 850-year-old “forest” of oak beams deliberately set alight? How could such a hardened wooden frame have burned so quickly and produced such heat if the fire was not in some way helped along? Annaud evades the issue, instead showing three possible ways the fire might have started: workers smoking during the day in the scaffolding that was present around the spire, a short-circuit in ancient electric equipment running through the cathedral’s frame as pigeons pecked at a wire, or a container of highly flammable material carelessly left there during the restoration in progress. 

But this is truly secondary compared with all the information that the film does bring to light. While Annaud’s scenario does have some fictional elements – including a very nice one that runs through the film, involving a little girl who devoutly lights a candle to the 14th century Madonna that symbolizes Notre Dame – scrupulous attention was paid to the facts. 

In fact, Annaud and his team spent months meeting with direct witnesses of the fire: people living around the cathedral, firefighters, safety guards at Notre Dame, the cathedral’s architect, curator, guides and officials, the mayor of Paris, and many others. An appeal was even set up to obtain videos shot by passers-by and tourists during the fire, in order to get different angles and moments on film. 

It seamlessly mingles archive footage and mock-ups of Notre Dame’s interiors. Part of the movie was shot on a life-size film set, with special cathedral scenery prepared to create realistic images of fire, debris and molten lead. The actors playing firefighters faced real flames and all-too-genuine heat. 

Three other cathedrals, those of Sens – the first ever Gothic cathedral on whose model Notre Dame was built – Bourges and Amiens, were used for a number of shots because of their resemblance to the Parisian sanctuary. The result is highly convincing, even stunning. 

With his scrupulously accurate rendering of the way things really went, Annaud presents a highly improbable story, with twists and turns that make it incredibly dramatic. Many things could probably not have gone worse than they did. 

Here are just a few examples. The security guard who was on duty – for a double watch because his colleague called at the last minute to say that he couldn’t come – was on his first day of work. When a fire alarm went off at 6:15 p.m., his identification of its location was incorrectly heard by another guard who was supposed to go and check personally whether there was indeed a fire developing. That gentleman wheezily went up to the eaves over the sacristy and found everything in good order. The faithful at Mass who had been shepherded out of the building together with the clergy, were ushered back in, convinced that it was a false alarm. It was only 35 minutes later that a second alarm went off, and the real fire, raging by now under Notre-Dame’s leaden roof, was seen by the same asthmatic guard. There was no video-surveillance. No fast, sure, and safe procedure. 

I will never forget what happened next, when the smoke started rolling out from the roof. Our daughter happened to be in the square at the foot of Notre Dame, on the Seine’s left bank. At 6:58, she texted a few curt words: “ND de Paris is on fire.” She was among those who stayed, watching and praying as the catastrophe unfolded. 

Annaud’s film gives a full view of it all. How the firefighters were blocked in dense traffic, and by endemic roadworks that made it impossible for their trucks to reach the scene quickly. How the dry standpipes in the cathedral itself gave way to the pressure of the water when the courageous men – and women, one of whom was out for her very first fire – in the first team climbed up to the eaves, leaving them with a useless straggle of water. How the longest hoses and highest cranes simply couldn’t reach the flames. How embers and molten lead and beams of wood crashed into the nave when the crossing of the arches between the nave and the transept gave way. How the firefighters had to go in anyway to check for damage and potential dangers. 

The film also shows the famous Paris pompiers (the firefighters are an army unit in the French capital) working as efficiently as circumstances would allow. They even set up a mock campaign headquarters at the foot of Notre Dame to receive the French president and other personalities while doing the actual work in the background without interference. 

One regrettable scene shows Donald Trump tweeting a suggestion that a water bomber aircraft be used to put out the fire. It was a bad idea, to be sure: there was no way the structure of Notre Dame could have borne the weight of so much water. But showing Trump texting to the world before digging into a giant hamburger is plain spite on the part of the filmmakers – and does not respond to the accuracy Annaud so proudly claims to have observed. 

However, that is just a passing reproach. 

Annaud’s treatment of the rescue of the Crown of Thorns, acquired by Saint Louis, a French king of the 13th century, redeems the whole. Once again, everything seemed to go wrong: first, to the dismay of Father Garnier, the chaplain of the Parisian pompiersa copy of the Crown was salvaged. Only one curator had the key to the cupboard where the key of the safe holding the true Crown was kept hidden – and he was at a reception in Versailles, 20 kilometers away, and depended on public transportation. 

His race against time to reach Notre Dame – with a missed train, faulty public bicycles, an almost dead battery in his phone and other malfunctions – is one of the most nerve-racking substories in the film. And it’s all true, including the fact that a team had to go in to fetch the treasured relic when no-one knew whether the cathedral would collapse, or when. 

Another beautiful moment in the film is when Father Garnier discreetly goes in, of his own accord, to rescue the consecrated Hosts in the cathedral’s two tabernacles. 

What has become very clear thanks to Jean-Jacques Annaud is that Notre Dame came within a hair’s breadth of total destruction. If the firefighters hadn’t done all they could to cool down the metal scaffolding around the spire, it would have melted and crashed into the nave, bringing down the walls with it. 

If they hadn’t gone into the north tower, which started burning shortly after 9 p.m., the heavy bronze bells would have fallen as their wooden structure gave way under the flames, and the tower itself would not have withstood the shock. And the whole structure of Notre Dame would have fallen like a house of cards. 

It was, in fact, thanks to the astuteness of a sub-officer who daringly went in to see what could be done that a group of heroic volunteers persuaded the general in charge that the tower could be saved. Almost single-handedly, they were able to extinguish the blaze in the north tower. 

And it is at these crucial moments that Annaud chose to show the scenes of young people praying and singing hymns at the foot of Notre Dame, including genuine footage of the night of the fire itself. 

In fact, a thread of faith runs through the film, centered on the Virgin Mary. Notre Dame is more than stones. It is the house of God and a sanctuary of beauty and devotion offered to Our Lady over the centuries. She clearly did not want to see it go to ruin. 

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Jeanne Smits has worked as a journalist in France since 1987 after obtaining a Master of Arts in Law. She formerly directed the French daily Présent and was editor-in-chief of an all-internet French-speaking news site called She writes regularly for a number of Catholic journals (Monde & vie, L’Homme nouveau, Reconquête…) and runs a personal pro-life blog. In addition, she is often invited to radio and TV shows on alternative media. She is vice-president of the Christian and French defense association “AGRIF.” She is the French translator of The Dictator Pope by Henry Sire and Christus Vincit by Bishop Schneider, and recently contributed to the Bref examen critique de la communion dans la main about Communion in the hand. She is married and has three children, and lives near Paris.