Tuesday, June 10, 2014

At the Movies and Related News: Philomena

Philomena (2013, Stephen Frears dir.)

I'm not a fan of movies where the theme is "bash the bad guys" especially when the "bad guys" have been bashed by many a moviemaker already. You know what I mean: Slavetraders, Nazis, heartless mine owners, and so forth. I don't deny the bad guys need bashing much of the time, I just don't care to get my "facts" via a one-sided, often manipulative film. And I often find the subject matter too sad to want to watch. I can read articles or a book if need be, where I will often find more nuanced, complete information.

Therefore, I'd managed to avoid Philomena until forced to watch it for a movie discussion group. If you have to watch a "bash the bad Irish Catholic nuns" film, this is probably the one you want. In this case they preach shame to unwed mothers while allowing rich American Catholics to adopt the babies without the mothers' permission. The mothers have to work in a horrible, prison-like laundry. It's definitely not Christian by any stretch of the imagination. So - very bad nuns.

Philomena (Judi Dench) is a woman who alongside reporter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) journeys to America to find the illegitimate son who was adopted 50 years ago. Philomena is still a Catholic, something that atheist Sixsmith just can't fathom after what was done to her.

So far, all is according to what we'd expect. The nuns are bad, the reporter is angry, and the film is fairly predictable and manipulative. So why do I say it is worth watching?

Judi Dench, as we'd expect, turns in a stellar performance as a little, old Irish lady who loves romances and salad bars. She also shows the fruit of fortitude in living with life's hard knocks, deep empathy, and keen insight. In some ways it made me think of my mother-in-law who had a gift for delivering simple but penetrating insights while we were doing something mundane like making potato salad. You never expected it but you always remembered it.

Philomena's, set between the two judgmental, unyielding, self-righteous forces of Mother Hildegarde and Martin Sixsmith, who delivers the takeaway message of the movie. This is reinforced by the view of her son's life, which points up the fact that life is often not easy no matter what one's circumstances. Viewers are left to ponder what actions they themselves take when life delivers a brutal blow.

It hadn't escaped my attention that this movie was in my life at just the time to make me pay attention to more terrible news about the Irish Catholic Church. We were specifically watching the movie as a contrast piece to I Confess featuring Montgomery Clift as a very holy priest from around the same time period. Obviously I needed to do my homework.

And I'm glad I did. It solidified one thing I already knew.

It doesn't matter who is committing evil, under what "trustworthy" banner whether religious, teacher, coach, or friend. Evil is evil. Vision is skewed.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness... — Matthew 23:27-28
Jennifer Fitz has an excellent piece on the Irish news, Evil is Easy, which only served to cement the reading I above, which I'd heard on a podcast while mulling this over. Jennifer pointed out that we need not only point fingers at the past. (Don't stop at this bit ... go read it all.)
What you and I need to fear, then, is not our tolerance of cruelty towards Irish unwed mothers of the mid-20th century, but our tolerance of some other horror that perhaps we can’t even see.
This formed an excellent talking point for the movie group, as a matter of fact. We also wound up discussing Irish culture as a whole which led to some of the points I read in Pia de Solenni's excellent coverage. I'll let you discover them for yourself in these pieces:
The best overall media analysis, as is so often the case in anything about religion, comes from GetReligion. Read In Irish children's deaths, clarity doesn't thrive in a septic tank to see who is reporting honestly and who is spinning without complete information.

For me the best commentary was that of Irish Independent columnist David Quinn. It is a thoughtful and thorough piece which leaves us with a truth that cannot be denied.
Why didn't the children and adults encounter a proper Christian witness, real love, when they walked through their doors? Why was it impersonal rules and regulations on a good day and cruelty of a sometimes very extreme kind on other days?

I think it was because Christianity in Ireland had by then hardened into something that was all too often more about punishment than mercy and forgiveness. To that extent Christianity in Ireland had become, in the strict meaning of the term, anti-Christ, and the church is still living this down.
With all that said, these are the sorts of things I read to get a real grip on a situation. You can't turn to a movie like Philomena expecting more than one view. We're just lucky that Philomena herself had the one view we really needed.

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