Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Philomena: A Review (of Sorts)

I'd like to recommend to you a movie Steve and I saw on the day after Thanksgiving--Stephen Frears's Philomena, starring Judi Dench. I don't want to say too much about the plot, since I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't yet seen the movie. Many of you will already know that the film recounts the real-life story of an Irish woman, Philomena Lee, who gave birth to a child in one of those homes for unwed mothers run by nuns in Ireland. The little boy was taken from her and sold to a couple in the states, and she spent years searching for her son--the focus of the film's plot.

The plot has the makings of a political diatribe--evil nuns, censorious Catholic attitudes towards sex, lies, secrets, and silence. The cruelty and duplicity of the nuns with whom Philomena deals is breathtaking. A filmmaker with a heavier hand would no doubt have bulled the story along in a determined, monochromatic way that allowed us to leave the theater full of righteous indignation against those who did Philomena wrong, ruined her life, and (spoiler alert) thwarted her attempt to find her son. All in the name of Jesus and his divine mercy, of course, it goes without saying . . . .

Frears's touch is much defter, however, and the story succeeds at getting under the skin as a result--and then won't let one go. I've struggled for days now with the movie's lack of clear resolution, its lack of the kind of moral indignation that would let me off the hook as I tussle with the thought of those evil nuns, those Catholic authority figures with their censorious notions of sex, the lies, the secrets, and the silence.

Instead, what Frears offers as the plot unfolds are quicksilver shifts from rage to tears to laughter, none of which allows one to nestle cozily down into a space of easy outrage. What we get in its place is a story of unexpected redemption in which Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the English journalist who offers to help Philomena search for her son and tell her story, and who has all the appropriate enraged responses to the evil nuns we ourselves also have, becomes Philomena's disciple in the spiritual life. Hearing from her a story of grace and forgiveness more complicated than the one he'd prefer to have heard and told--a story that ends up implicating him . . . .

From the moment Philomena hangs a St. Christopher medal across the rearview mirror as she gets into the car with Martin to drive to the nuns' place in Roscrea, we know we're in for a ride. Or we should know this, especially when the movie has opened by showing us Philomena sitting facing a statue of another sorrowful mother whose son is taken from her far too soon, on the day Philomena gave birth to her son Anthony fifty years previously.

Philomena's the kind of person, you see, who prays. And believes. And trusts and forgives--often, to her own detriment. There are times when we're inclined to wonder if she suffers a bit from Asperger syndrome, especially when she blurts out to Martin that the nuns taught her nothing of the clitoris, and that when she discovered sex with the young man at a fair who fathered her child, she adored it. It was nothing like the foul, evil pit of filth the nuns had led her to expect it would be.

Again, in clumsier hands, this could be a story about a poorly educated Irish woman consigned to the wicked nuns when her father discovered she was pregnant, whose ignorance and superstition set her up for a life of suffering for which she herself was in many ways responsible. In contrast to the Oxbridge-educated Sixsmith, who was also raised Catholic but had the good sense to ditch the ignorance and superstition when he became educated and began to move among the giltterati . . . .

But nothing in this sly little story that forces us to move from tears and anger to laughter is quite so simple--and have I said that this is why the movie gets under our skin so? It turns out that the St. Christopher medal--that is, Philomena's belief in the "luck" that comes along with prayer, grace, and the practice of the Christian life--opens all kinds of wildly unpredictable doors in which the impossible happens.

Martin discovers that he has already been implicated. Philomena makes heartbreaking discoveries about what the nuns have known all along and refused to tell her. We want to reach through the screen and slap the modern young nun who is all sweetness and light as she lies yet again to Philomena, while telling her she and the nuns will walk with her through the pain of her life spent searching in vain for a lost son. 

Martin learns from Philomena that he's a feckin' eedjit, as Philomena enters the church to confess her sins and comes out unshriven and in tears--having learned that she can no longer formulate her sins in the simplistic way she'd been taught by the nuns to formulate them. This movie is, in many ways, a story about discernment

It's a story about an Irish Catholic woman given few opportunities to learn and fulfill herself, after she made the mistake of becoming pregnant out of wedlock. It's a story about a woman who accepts her lot in life as God's will for her, and who is willing to believe the pieties and restricting aphorisms mumbled at her by the pastors of her church and the religious women who echo what the pastors say--but who somehow still manages to think her own thoughts, and ends up making surprising decisions that those mumbled pieties and restricting aphorisms haven't envisaged.

Constantly throughout the film, Philomena tells us that enough is enough, she's through with the story, the nuns were right after all and she's really nothing but a failure who deserved her fate due to her lapse from grace as a young unmarried woman. But then suddenly she finds that there are voices that speak at a deeper level in her soul than those superimposed voices of the nuns and their clerical taskmasters.

She herself is the subject of divine inspiration--something that the opening scene of the movie, with Philomena and Mary sitting together in a chapel, communing in their sorrow about lost sons, has  foreshadowed for us, and which it repeats in one way or another as the plot unfolds. She makes up her own mind, no matter what she's been told to think and believe. No matter what black sin she has committed . . . .

She herself knows right from wrong, because God lives in her soul, despite her infraction of the moral rules as a young woman. As a result, she ends up teaching not just the callow Martin Sixsmith something about the spiritual life that he never expects to learn from her, but she ends up teaching the nuns themselves. She ends up teaching them who is and who is not the master of the spiritual life, regardless of who dons the habit and has the cross prominently displayed around her neck.

This is a movie very well worth seeing. Bring tissues. Expect to walk out of the theater dazed and blinking back unshed tears. 

It will grab hold of you and shake you up, if you allow it to claim your attention in that way. And that's a good thing to say about a movie, I think.

No comments: