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My 12 for ’13: Philomena & Harsh Truths

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 8…

Every country has its own shameful secrets, the parts of its history that it would gladly lock away in a box far from prying eyes, and would be happy to never speak of them again. Slavery has been pushed to the forefront of American popular consciousness over the past year or so. Spielberg’s Lincoln dealt with the topic in a very philosophical manner, while 12 Years a Slave offered a more visceral exploration and Django Unchained sought to shock and discomfort its audience with its exploration of past atrocities.

In Ireland, we have an entire lost generation. In a society where the Catholic Church held an inequitable amount of authority, and prevailing moral values led to condemnation of single mothers, countless young women effectively signed their lives away to indentured servitude, parting with their children and devoting years of their lives to financing the church by providing free labour. It’s something that we’ve only recently begun to come to terms with, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologising publicly for their treatment in February of this year.

Philomena bristles with a righteous sort of anger, offering the remarkable story of one woman who lived through that.

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Philomena Lee is a remarkable woman. Not just the version presented on screen by Judi Dench, but also in real life. She took the time to reply to film critic Kyle Smith’s rather blistering attack on the film, drafting a response with considerable restraint and a great deal of dignity. It’s remarkable to think that a w0man who could have through those events could be so impossibly patient, even-handed and forgiving.

Then again, it’s in keeping with the version of Philomena we meet in the film. Sure, this version of the character is perhaps a little too comical naive and optimistic, a little too unrefined and unsophisticated, but Stephen Frears’ film treats her with the utmost respect and dignity. For all that Philomena might be impressed with the ability to watch Big Momma’s House in her snazzy Washington hotel room, she’s a good person with her own issues and quirks to work through.

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Which makes her decision at the climax of the film so incredibly impossible. Having visited Ireland several times to try to track her lost son, she discovers that the nuns have been less-than-helpful. When they talk about how they lost all the records in “the fire”, they forget to mention that they started the fire specifically to destroy the records. Against all odds, and with no assistance from the church, Philomena and Martin Sixsmith manage to track down her son – only to discover that he passed away.

However, on their journey, Martin and Philomena make a shocking discovery. Suffering from AIDS, close to death, her son had engaged in his own pilgrimages to Ireland to try to find his roots. He visited the same institution. He spoke to the same nuns. And they didn’t tell him anything. The lies of omission were painful enough, petty and spiteful as they might be. However, the nuns have conspired to rob Philomena of any time that she might have had with her son.

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Here, Martin Sixsmith loses it. Having accompanied Philomena on her journey, originally intending to exploit her “human interest” story, Sixsmith has been drawn into Philomena’s quest. Sixsmith is very clearly an audience identification character. Given the script was written by Coogan, it’s no surprise that he comes across as a bit Partridge-esque. He makes jokes that aren’t funny, is snooty and condescending, shows awareness of who he is talking to and only the faintest amount of empathy.

And yet, despite all that, Sixsmith is outraged at what the nuns have done. It’s a righteous anger, the anger of somebody unable to comprehend the sheer off-hand cruelty of it all, unable to fathom what Philomena or her son might have done to deserve such petty and spiteful treatment. Sixsmith is an atheist, but even he appreciates the irony that these people claim to be working for a Catholic God. “If Jesus were here, he’d push you out of that chair,” Sixsmith rather bluntly assures one elderly nun. “And you wouldn’t bloody walk.” While the claim is questionable, it’s easy to empathise with Sixsmith’s claim.

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Kyle Smith argued that the film was an attack on Catholicism, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair. For all that the nuns are shown to be corrupt and malicious, Philomena herself upholds the core values of the religion. Martin Sixsmith might argue that his atheism is more logical and rational than Philomena’s faith, but the film itself takes great pains to respect Philomena’s beliefs. Drawing on her faith, she’s able to do something that Sixsmith can’t, despite his distance from the crime; despite the fact he wasn’t directly involved; despite the fact that this isn’t his fight.

“I forgive you,” she tells the nun, managing to embody the best of Catholicism. Sixsmith can’t fathom this. He can’t comprehend how somebody could live through all that and be able to forgive somebody for robbing them of the last chance to reconcile with their long-lost child. “It’s that easy?” he asks, before being assured that it was actually really hard. Before he leaves, Sixsmith makes his own position clear. “I couldn’t forgive you,” he assures the nun.

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It’s a powerful and moving story, one which is undoubtedly similar to dozens and hundreds more. It’s a beautifully constructed exploration of lives torn apart by one of the darker and more shameful chapters in Irish history. However, more than that, it’s a strange vindication of the belief system that these people so wilfully and gleefully corrupted to serve their own malicious ends. Sixsmith can’t comprehend forgiveness, yet Philomena can. It’s quite clear that her willingness to forgive even this most heinous of sins is rooted in her own faith, her own belief.

In a strange sort of way, then, Philomena is far from an attack on an entire religion. If anything, it’s a vindication of the core Catholic beliefs, the essential attributes of the religion. How much faith and hope and charity must it take to be able to forgive something like that? Philomena is not a criticism of Catholicism or Christianity. It’s just a condemnation of those who perverted and failed to live up to the values of that religion.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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4 Responses

  1. Excellent commentary. This one is very close to my Top Ten, as well. Definitely a moving film.

    I agree this film isn’t a condemnation of religion en masse or of the Catholic faith. I’d argue that it is, however, an unmitigated argument against the institution that runs Catholism. Even the modern day nuns are less something short of the moral high ground.

    Not that that ruins the film for me. Far from it. This is unquestionably very good.

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