Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Alternate Title:  Forgiving the Unforgivable

One sentence synopsis:    An unemployed journalist becomes embroiled in a human interest story concerning an elderly Irish lady trying to find the son she was forced to give up by the Catholic Church fifty years earlier.

Things Havoc liked:  When all is said and done, and the verdicts of history are finally written, the Roman Catholic Church as an institution will have much to answer for. Without diving into papist and anti-papist polemics, the Church has spent the last two millenia vigorously sweeping a great many sins under the rug of holiness and salvation, recently as well as in the distant past. In this, the Catholic Church does not differ substantially from every other religious organization on the planet (or, for that matter, a great many secular ones), but the reach, power, and weight of centuries that the Church had and has at its disposal necessary gave them a capacity for good or evil greater than the majority of their fellows. And without endeavoring to insult the many Catholics who find solace in the modern church, nor the many Catholic priests, bishops, or officials who use it to minister to spirits and perform such good works as they can, a proper accounting must ultimately be made for crimes committed under the aegis of the Roman cross. Thus we come to the story of Philomena Lee.

Dame Judi Dench (CH DBE FRSA) is a living legend of British film and theater, and here plays the aforementioned Philomena, an old Irish lady who once, fifty years ago, was a young woman with no family, taken in by an order of Catholic nuns who ran a workhouse for "wayward girls", otherwise known as women in Ireland who became pregnant out of wedlock. With Ireland dominated by the Catholic church to an extent unheard of even today (which is saying something), there was simply no alternative for such girls but to live and work in such convents, where their children would be essentially sold to wealthy adoptive families without their mothers' consent, the church having taken the precaution of obtaining contracts whereby the mothers declaim all parental rights to their own children. Now, fifty years later, Philomena has spent most of her life trying to discover what happened to the son who was taken away from her, periodically asking the church to help locate him, a request that is constantly denied.

Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Sixsmith, a former cabinet minister and journalist for the BBC, finds himself without a job in 2002 and encounters the story of Philomena by accident. Deciding after some reluctance to turn the story into a human interest piece, he meets the old woman and offers to help her track her son down by means other than the completely unhelpful Church authorities. Thus begins an odyssey from Ireland to America, as Sixsmith first seeks to uncover the identity of Philomena's son, then later the circumstances of his life, and his current location. Along the way, he is required to put up with Philomena, who chatters on endlessly, tries to elicit the life stories of everyone she meets (including waitresses), and maintains a number of "quaint" habits calculated to drive one mad. Yet this is Judy Dench, not Tyler Perry, and the character comes across like a real old woman, not some pastiche of one designed to elicit "comedy". Coogan plays Sixsmith as a slightly smarmy Oxfordian, but one who truly is trying to both find the truth and to, in some small way, right the terrible wrongs that have been inflicted on Philomena.

And there are such wrongs in this film. One can understand, perhaps, the mentality from fifty years ago that led the Church to take Philomena's son from her by force, and adopt him out to wealthy Americans. One can even perhaps understand, if one is particularly twisted, what would lead them to cover their tracks by incinerating records and refusing to provide assistance to Philomena's search. Yet the moral turpitudes of the Irish Catholic Church in this film ultimately beggar the imagination, and while normally I would object to such things as unrealistic, research of my own shows that, if anything, the film understates the matter. Yet rather than just wallowing in the Church's repugnant, shameful treatment of a Catholic woman seeking to know about her long-lost son, the film actually uses the horrific treatment Philomena (and her son) have been subjected to, to bring up themes of forgiveness and redemption, all perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film. Philomena is a Catholic of the old school, one who believes and lives what she has been taught, even when those who teach it to her plainly do not. And the interaction between the elderly Catholic lady and the cynical, agnostic Brit, which the film never allows to become antagonistic, nor overly saccharine, secures the film along a very strong narrative line.

Things Havoc disliked:  The above praise may sound like something you'd read in a marketing handbill, and for that I apologize. The base fact is that this movie, while compelling and even interesting, only reaches so high. Philomena regards everything that has been done to her as something that happened in the past, unchangeable now, and not worth wallowing in hate over. This is both a commendable attitude towards the wrongs she has suffered, as well as an incredibly difficult one, and so I'm loathe to object, but Philomena seems almost completely unperturbed by the staggering revelations as to what actually was done by the nuns who took her son, and whom she relied upon to help her find him. Forgiveness and a healthy outlook on life are wonderful things, but they are the antithesis of drama, and the certainty with which the character determines to rise above the crimes done to her, actually robs them of meaning, preventing us from actually seeing just what these losses actually meant to her. If forgiving someone who destroyed a large portion of your life is hard, then the best way to illustrate this is to make it look hard, not like some simple thing one can just decide to do as if choosing what to eat for lunch.

Worse yet, this same problem winds up warping the other character, Sixsmith. Not a Catholic himself, more mired in the cynical world around him, Sixsmith is utterly horrified by what has been done to Philomena, and becomes moreso as it is revealed that the Church is actively continuing to screw her by any means it can, even when there is no reason to do so beyond sheer, contemptuous spite. His reaction, when all is revealed, is outrage and fury, only for him to be castigated by Philomena herself for being so angry. Defiantly, Philomena rejects the anger Sixsmith evidences as she does not want to become a sad, broken person like him. Perhaps in another film this sort of declaration and message would work, but here, the crimes are so unforgivably terrible that Sixsmith's anger is hardly an unreasonable reaction, indeed my own (and I suspect, that of most people) would be far, far worse. And yet the message here seems to be that if you react with anything but saintly forgiveness to a horrific crime committed against someone you care about, you are a terrible person who should be ashamed of yourself.

Dare I suggest that this is a sentiment that the Irish church is desperately trying to encourage?

Forgiveness is not an easy or automatic thing, for it were, then there would be no need to laud it, or stand in awe of those capable of it regardless of circumstances. It cannot be mandated or expected as a matter of course, not from everyone, not when the crimes are as terrible as these. While Philomena's superhuman capacity to act as Jesus taught her and forgive her enemies is rightly praised in the film, by pretending that this is the only reasonable response to such incidents, the film, I fear, makes the preposterous claim that if Philomena had reacted with rage and fury at the terrible things done to her out of pure spite, then somehow she would have been in the wrong. And by making Philomena apparently hold such a belief, the film quite unavoidably begins to make her forgiveness take on the appearance of some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, wherein she forgives the Church because she cannot bear to imagine it culpable. While I'm sure this is not the impression the film was trying to give, in casting Sixsmith's anger in such a negative light (something not helped by having him periodically start reciting atheistic propaganda for no reason except to make him look bad), the movie starts to resemble a hatchet job against critics of the Church.

Final thoughts:   No, I don't actually think this film is a hatchet job against anyone, and I appreciate that this review may be starting to sound like an Anti-Catholic screed, for which I must apologize again. The point here is not really anything particular to Catholicism, but a more basic one, about the harm that self-righteous institutions can do, and the ways in which one can respond to things done to one. I do not pretend that this movie is poorly made, badly acted, or incompetently written and shot, for it is none of those things. On an objective level, it is a very good film. But a reaction to a piece of art is by necessity personal, and my personal reaction to the film was, to my surprise, less positive than I expected, especially in reflection, and the problems with the way in which it deals with the issues it raises are not ones that can simply be swept aside.

"I couldn't forgive you," says Sixsmith at one point, after Philomena has somehow managed to do just that. Were I in his position, I might well have set the building on fire, so outrageous is the behavior of the nuns in this film. And while arson is obviously not a reasonable response to something like this, searing, incandescent anger absolutely is. Philomena Lee is free to forgive those who trespassed against her, and should rightly be honored for it. But not all of us are capable of such sentiments. And there is nothing whatsoever the matter with anyone who, having had their child stolen, and been lied to for fifty years as to his whereabouts, found themselves unable to forgive.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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