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True story “Philomena” is a journey and a testament
IT’S HARD TO BE SURPRISED BY any of the terrible things done by the Catholic Church. This is an organization that has existed for centuries, across some of the world’s greatest political and cultural upheavals, and given that they have managed to change with times while maintaining even a semblance of their original messages is nothing short miraculous.
Of course, as society changes and loosens its grip on strict dogmatic morality, certain parts of the church will always look archaic and barbaric through the lens of the present. The church will never adapt as quickly as the rest of the world, and as a result people will continue to be hurt by practitioners of the faith, in the name of God and the defense of the Gospels.
Whether or not a person should be blamed for genuine belief in dubious charity, despite the appalling consequences that seem evident to a modern outsider, is at the heart of “Philomena,” an Oscar-nominated film that deserves all the praise it has received. The breadth of subject matter found in this year’s nominees is a testament to how varied film is as a medium. Anything can be a good film, given the proper attention.
“Philomena” is based on the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly woman searching for her son over the course of 50 years. It was the subject of a book by Martin Sixsmith, a journalist played in the film by Steve Coogan. Fifty years prior to the film’s opening, Philomena was dropped off at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland by her father because she had become pregnant out of wedlock.
This was common practice at the time—“wayward girls” were given to the nuns by parents too embarrassed to manage them. The girls were forced to deliver their children without the care of a physician or pain medication, resulting in the deaths of many of the babies and mothers, some at ages as young as 14. This pain and threat of death was considered penance for sexual immorality, a sin that was meant to follow them forever. In return for their care, the girls worked at the abbey to pay off their debts while their children were put up for adoption (or sale, depending on your perspective). Most of these adoptions were made by Americans. The mothers had no say in who their children left with and were given no information on their whereabouts later on.
The majority of the film focuses on Philomena’s search with Martin for her lost son. We spend ample time with the two, an odd couple if there ever was one, adding much-needed levity to a film that is nearly too painful to watch at times. If it weren’t for the charm and simplicity of Philomena, and the performance by Dench, the film might easily fall into a hackneyed, tearjerker category. But because of the cast, and the careful direction by director Stephen Frears, the film rises above the genre into something more substantial.
Of particular importance are the themes of faith in the film. Sixsmith is a “recovering Catholic”, one who finds sense in the absence of belief and is intensely angered by the actions of the nuns in Roscrea. Philomena is quiet, reserved, and hopeful. She refuses to blame the nuns, accepting that the decisions were made not out of malice but genuine belief in charity.
The nuns were unequivocally wrong in their behavior, but what happened in the past is not Philomena’s concern. She is only interested in finding her son. Throughout the film, despite the shocking revelations of just how far the nuns were willing to go to hide their practices, Philomena doesn’t lose her faith. She sees the church as it is, refusing to compromise her belief system for the sake of flawed disciples. Philomena is portrayed as an uncarved block, an innocent unstudied and uncouth. She loves dime romance novels and is fascinated with the simple pleasures of an American buffet breakfast. But she also understands the reality of the world, far beyond the educated and snide Martin. She flows like water over the rocks, while Martin pushes against the current.
“Philomena” will not be Best Picture, and Judi Dench will likely not win for Best Actress, due to the stacked competition this year, but like all the nominees it’s worth a look. It is most certainly one of the best films of the year.