Friday, November 15, 2013

Philomena (2013): The Long Term Effects of Shame

Philomena (2013)
dir: Stephen Frears

The subjects of shame and religion are deeply entwined in cultures deeply steeped in Judeo-Christian religions. It's been said that the Jews invented and encoded guilt, and all subsequent religions have been following in their footsteps.  Religion, or the lack there of, are distinctive parts of one's personality, and faith is deeply embedded in some of the kinder souls of this world.

Allow me to get personal here for a minute.  My family is Catholic on both sides.  One of my grandmother's was deeply Catholic.  She went to mass daily, took the kids to mass when she could, and tried to instill the best values of Catholicism in the blood of the family.  Of course, people being people, this led to varying results from kid to kid, but she was deeply religious throughout.

Sometime in the 1970s, I believe, my grandfather left my grandmother, and ran out of state.  I only met the man once (amusingly at my First Communion), and this story is not about him.  But, my grandparents were never officially divorced.  Worse, their marriage was never annulled by the Catholic church either.  Between the years of 1884 and 1977, a divorce or separation without annulment led to excommunication in the American Catholic church.  If you were divorced without annulment, you could not participate in the Catholic church, you were not supposed to receive Communion, and you could not be considered a Catholic.

In 1977, this was changed by the National Council of American Bishops and the Pope, but before that you were excommunicated for separation.  Especially if your ex-spouse remarried outside the Church, which my grandfather did, I heard.  

Since these events happened before 1977, this tore my grandmother up.  She always was deeply religious, and was hurt that she had to be excommunicated.  But, she never lost her faith.  She attended Mass, and participated as best she could and as much was allowed.

Because religion is so important to so many people, including to many of the people who don't believe, a large portion of the audience are going to be bringing their own experiences into Philomena, and the viewing will be colored by people's experiences.  And, this should not be discounted as part of the movie going experience that Stephen Frears is constructing.

Philomena is the fictionalization and personalization of the true story of Philomena Lee, Michael Hess, and Max Sixsmith.  The personalization of the story comes courtesy of Steve Coogen, who seems to be playing his own version of Martin Sixsmith, and also wrote and produced the movie. 

Philomena Lee, played by the infinitely watchable Dame Judi Dench, is an older Catholic woman who is looking for her long lost son, who was taken from her 50 years prior.  As a teenager, she had become pregnant by a chance relationship, and was disowned by her father to a Catholic Abbey, where she gave birth and worked in the laundry to pay for her debts.  The nuns raised her child, as well as the illegitimate children of other teenage girls, while she worked.  However, this abbey had a habit of selling off their children to rich families and not notifying the mothers.  

Even though Philomena starts off as a usual sob story of keeping your religion in the face of terrible leaders, and hunting for a long lost child, it changes into a deeper movie about anger, faith, devotion, and hiding.  This isn't merely about faith and devotion to religion, this is also about faith and devotion to anything that doesn't really want you as a member.  It asks the question of what do you do when the thing you believe in stabs you in the back.

Stephen Frears and Steve Coogen mask the layers of message in a sledgehammer blunt movie.  In Philomena, the nuns are all evil, angry and resentful of people who live life. In Philomena, the owner of the newspaper is eager to exploit a real life tragedy for weekend news. Martin Sixsmith is angry at religion in general, a reaction from his rejection of religion. He is also bluntly rude, and aloof to everybody around him.  The treacly score swells when you're supposed to tear up, and the parceling of information is calculated to pull your heart strings.  It is Oscar Bait to a maximal degree.  

However, beneath that is all the complexity of life and faith.  I'm about to get spoilery to a major degree, so just take it on faith that I liked it despite the hammer bluntness on the face, and go watch the movie.  Michael Hess was a homosexual who died of AIDS.  He was also a member of the Republican National Party, who coordinated gerrymandering, and was appointed as chief legal counsel to George Bush, Sr. He worked his way up the ranks in the GOP as Reagan was denying funding to AIDS research and ensuring that the republicans stayed in power even as they were rejecting him through policy and rhetoric.

Michael Hess was also looking for his mother starting in 1977.  He never felt at home with his adoptive family, and was looking for his homeland and his mother that he half-remembered from his first three years of life. Michael Hess visited the abbey several times, even as Philomena was also going to find him.  When he died in 1995, Michael Hess was so dedicated to this hunt that he was buried at the convent in order to be found by his mother, if she should ever go searching for him.  

The Catholic Church had a policy in the 1950s and 1960s that single mothers should not be allowed to raise their children.  Obviously, this came out of a terrible faith that a two-parent family was better than a single mother.  And, their policy continued to be that any mother-child they separated, they would never bring back together.  They steadfastly refused to bring anybody searching, even if they were both looking for each other.

Despite all of this, Philomena Lee never really lost her faith in the Catholic Church, even though they stole her son and lied to her.  And, Michael Hess never lost faith in the Republican party even as they were actively persecuting him.  And, in my life, my grandmother never lost the Catholic Church despite being excommunicated.  The movie isn't exploring the validity of religion.  It's exploring the depth of faith. As the nuns are evil, how could somebody stay faithful?  And, yet, Philomena tells a nun, who was seen in a photo with Michael, "I forgive you."  Sixsmith says he could never forgive them. 

Where the movie really fails is its steadfast refusal to plumb the depths of the policies that led to the movie, and only makes passing mention of the devastating effects.  Philomena fails to mention that the Catholic Church's policies effected the policies of the Irish government. The Irish government took it as policy to let the Catholic Church take the children of these single mothers and sell them for profit.  The Irish government also PAID the Catholic Church for the care of these mothers and children. And, the government also took it as policy to force single mothers into these convents.  The unwed mothers weren't just single teenagers rejected by families.  Some were taken from families.  This led to thousands of children stolen from single mothers.  

In the end, the movie works so much better when it stops playing everything so broad and lets the facts hit their emotional center. The overly broad relationship between Sixsmith and Philomena never rings as real, given how broadly they're drawn.  But, when Judi Dench soliloquizes about her memories, or when she's confronted with Michael Hess' family, or confronted with the death, the emotions are less broad and feel honest in comparison to the rest of the film. If only Coogen and Frears had gone more for honest and less for stereotype-filled message film. All the themes discussed above that make the film amazing are naturally in the story, and would be present in a better, less obvious, movie.

But, its still interesting and watchable despite itself.

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