Saturday, February 22, 2014

Philomena -- road trip to forgiveness

Director: Stephen Frears, 2013 (PG-13)

Of all the Oscar Best Picture Nominees, Philomena may be the least well known, not getting much screen time. But it was the one that resonated most with my wife, as we watched them recently. That's probably because it is a poignant and heart-warming true story of a mother's search for her lost son. There was nary a dry eye in the theater by the time the movie ended. I even had to reach for a handkerchief to mop up some tears.

The film is based on the book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," by Martin Sixsmith. Here Steve Coogan, who wrote the screenplay, plays Sixsmith. He is an Oxford-educated journalist who has just been fired from his job as a PR specialist for the government. Without a job, he wants to write a tome on Russian history, but that won't pay the rent. At a cocktail party he meets a young Irish woman who tells him of her mother's human interest story. Though that has no appeal, Sixsmith eventually contacts her mother for a meeting.

Philomena Lee (Judy Dench) is that mother. As a young Catholic lass in Ireland, a moment of indiscretion and pleasure ends up with her pregnant. Her father puts her in the local Catholic convent where the nuns force such girls to live a life of indentured servitude after they have given birth. And then they sold the babies! On what would be her son's 50th birthday Philomena decides the truth must come out and she must find her son. She offers Sixsmith the rights to the story if he will help her trace her son.

The film is part odd couple, part adventure, as these two unlikely traveling companions journey from England to Ireland and on to America. Where Sixsmith is jaded and cynical, Philomena is innocent and naive. She marvels at such things as all-you-can-eat breakfast at their hotel. Where Sixsmith is an atheist, Philomena is still a Catholic. She has held onto her faith.

What might sound sweet and sugary if not outright sentimental is actually balanced perfectly by Frears (The Queen). It helps that he has Dame Judy Dench as the central character. She gives the film its heart. Even Coogan does not overplay the cynicism.

As the journey winds through Washington DC, Sixsmith uses his journalistic skills to uncover Philomena's son's identity. And this leads them deeper into the heartland of America, before the film concludes where it belongs: back at the convent.

Two pairs of themes emerge in two key scenes. First is guilt and shame. Shame landed Philomena in the convent in the first place. And guilt kept her silent for 50 years. But shame and guilt are hard taskmasters. They never let up. Eventually, they can suffocate faith and destroy a life.

In one scene, toward the end of the film, Philomena asks Sixsmith to stop the car at a small rural Catholic Church in America. She wants to go to confession. But once inside, she cannot get the words out. Her faith has been bruised, both by the years of shame and guilt, as well as by the polite polemics from Sixsmith, a man who has no faith. She emerges shaken. Has she lost her faith, we wonder?

What is the solution to shame and guilt? Sixsmith and Philomena have two different opinions. He sees the tragic injustice carried out by the Catholic convent and wants justice. That is his solution. But Philomena has another idea: forgiveness.

In the second, climactic scene, Philomena comes to terms with what has occurred and offers forgiveness. In forgiving her tormentors, she not only behaves more like Jesus, who forgave his crucifiers (Lk. 23:34), than any of the nuns, she also found peace for herself. It takes faith to forgive. This is a faith to trust in a just God who will handle injustice. We cannot right all the world's wrongs.

Ultimately, we find Philomena's road trip a journey to closure and reestablished faith for her. While Sixsmith remains entrenched in his faithlessness, he has witnessed the remarkable healing power of  forgiveness. And that, surely, is worth something. This is a film surely worth seeing.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

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