Philomena – a Tale of Two Worlds

This is a review of Philomena that I wrote for the Solas website –

Philomena – A Tale of Two Worlds.

I went with some trepidation to see Philomena at the DCA. Mainly because I knew the story and had read the gleeful and gloating reviews from my atheist friends who like to take any opportunity to stick the boot into the Church. And Philomena certainly does provide opportunity. However the film was much better than I expected – in fact it is the best film I have seen in a long time.

I won’t go into the whole plot, you can read plenty reviews and easily get a basic summary of the story. Damaris as always provide a helpful summary, guide and discussion questions – http://www.damaris.org/content/culturewatchguides/621

The basic storyline, based on a true story, is that the journalist Martin Sixsmith aids Philomena, an elderly Irish lady to find her son, whom she was forced to give up for adoption by a group of nuns. I’ll not spoil the story but it does end up being a kind of road movie. Judi Dench is stunning as Philomena and surely has to be a cert for the Oscar. Steve Coogan as Sixssmith belies his comedic role and turns in an excellent performance, both as actor and director. The film itself is much more subtle than just an anti-Catholic bash. It is humorous, poignant and pointed. I loved every minute of it and found myself laughing out loud at some of the funnier and pointed observations. For example when Sixsmith goes on a rant outside a Catholic Church about what would God say to him about thousands dying in an earthquake in Turkey, Philomena replies “he’d say you were a fecking eejit!’.

Overall though I came away with the impression that this is a film about two worlds, neither of which I belong to. The first is the world of superstitious, medieval Irish Catholicism – a world that lacks grace and is full of hypocrisy. I know several people who having been brought up in that world, have turned away from it. A few have become atheists or agnostics but most have become Christians of another sort. The bottom line is that the twisted theology represented by most (though not all) of the nuns is not the theology of grace of the Bible. How someone can justify lying in order to punish is beyond me. The notion that one can atone for one’s own sins by physical pain (such as childbirth) is about as anti-Christ as you can get. The world that is presented here is one of religious oppression and suppression, guilt and manipulation. Who would want to actually belong to that? Little wonder that it leaves people angry. And little wonder that, if that is what you believe Christianity is, you would want nothing to do with it.

Which brings us on to the second world. The cynical and almost as severe secular world of the sophisticated and scornful Sixsmith. He rightly gets angry, but seems to have little context and expression for that anger. There is one great scene where Philomena asks him how he can live with such anger. She chooses to forgive; he chooses to be cynical and superior. One part that rang true was the dismissive comment that he makes about sex, asking why God would have created a sexual desire which he then wants us to resist! The choice we are thus presented with is the repressive view of sin and sex that stems from some aspects of traditional Catholicism, or the libertarian,’ sex is an appetite to be indulged’ view of much contemporary secular society.

I accept that the portrayal of these two different worlds in Philomena is simplistic and that there is good and bad in every human system, as there is in every human being. But the trouble is that I genuinely don’t belong to either of those worlds, and I don’t want to. I don’t accept their philosophies and worldviews. The repressive religion of the Irish Catholicism portrayed in the film is one that I utterly loath. It is cruel, vindictive, hypocritical and a disgrace to the name of Christ. The plastic Jesus dolls being sold by the convent at the end of the film speak volumes. This is a manipulative, twisted and cruel version of Christianity that, no matter how it is packaged, deserves to be shunned.

But likewise the Godless, materialistic, consumerist, cynical world of the superior elites is not my world either. I just don’t buy into the liberal myths which ultimately lead to as much repression and oppression as the repressive religion it so despises. Disney ain’t real. Neither is the liberal utopia of our middle class ideologues who can only see the world through the rose tinted glasses of their faith in human goodness, and their belief that ‘things can only get better’, (as long as they are in charge!)

Philomena herself gives a hint of a different possibility. Despite all the disappointments she clearly has a faith in God. She looks for a better world. A just world. A beautiful world. A world without lying, guilt and weary cynicism. That world is not a pipe dream. It can be found in Christ. And His Kingdom is coming. A time when all that is wrong will be made right. A time when there will be a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Meanwhile he has left his Church on earth to pray and work for that Kingdom to come. His Church – not the church of popes, prelates, or manipulative TV evangelists. Ironically Philomena gave me a tremendous hope that the glory and beauty of Christ will shine through, whatever the darkness it is surrounded by. A great film…..

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