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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Philomena

By
John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service


CNS photo/Weinstein
Though compelling, the fact-based drama "Philomena" (Weinstein) makes uncomfortable viewing for Catholic moviegoers.

That's because this story of the titular character's search for her long-lost son presents church institutions in a uniformly negative light.

Yet director Stephen Frears' screen version of Martin Sixsmith's book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" recognizes the enduring individual faith of this same warmhearted Irish woman—played with aplomb by Judi Dench—as the source of her endearing personality.

Flashbacks to Philomena's teen years, during which she's portrayed by Sophie Kennedy Clark, show us some of the worst aspects of Irish society in the 1950s. An encounter with a stranger at a county fair leaves young Philomena pregnant, and her family, scandalized and shamefaced, promptly abandons her.

With nowhere else to turn, Philomena is thrown on the not-very-abundant mercy of the nuns who run a local facility for unwed mothers. There she's browbeaten, forced to endure a torturous breech delivery without anesthesia and only allowed to see her child for an hour a day. The rest of the time she toils in the convent laundry to work off her "debt" to the sisters.

But there's worse to come. Mothers at the home are more or less forced to give their children up for adoption to rich American visitors to the Emerald Isle, and one day it's Philomena's turn to undergo this ordeal. The separation is absolute; Philomena loses all track of the boy.

Flash-forward 50 years and, for the first time, retired nurse Philomena shares her sad tale with her grown daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Through Jane, Philomena is able to enlist the help of cynical British reporter Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay).

Recently an adviser to Tony Blair's Labor government, Sixsmith is at a loose end after being fired amid career-damaging circumstances. Though disdainful of human-interest stories, he nonetheless sees the appeal of Philomena's quest and brings his investigative skills to bear on her behalf.

As chronicled in Coogan and Jeff Pope's script, both the beginning and the conclusion of Philomena's saga have the potential to jar believers' sensibilities.

Thus, with reference to the church's sexual teaching and Philomena's past, altar-boy-turned-atheist Sixsmith asks her why God would endow us with an appetite he then wanted us to suppress. Not surprisingly, he seems blind to the difference between suppression and moderation, and ignores the obvious analogy that God did not give human beings the blessing of food so that we could become obese gluttons.

On the other hand, properly viewed, "Philomena" may serve to illustrate the dangers that can result when appreciation for the virtue of chastity degenerates into puritanical repression -- and when objective moral truths are misused as judgmental bludgeons.

With the exception of one seemingly temporary crisis, moreover, Philomena herself is shown to cling tenaciously to the very faith by whose representatives she was so cruelly mistreated. In fact, her Gospel-based beliefs help to set up the contrast in personalities between the two leads on which much of the movie's drama—as well as many of its interludes of much-needed comic relief—turn.

Throughout their interaction, Philomena's religiously inspired enthusiasm for life, friendliness toward others and willingness to forgive are shown to be in stark opposition to Sixsmith's jaded, isolating air of condescension.

Even so, a large measure of discernment is required to tackle the challenging material on offer here, including a conflicted but not fundamentally hostile outlook on faith.

The film contains mature themes including premarital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and homosexuality, a scene of painful childbirth, a couple of same-sex kisses, a few rough terms and a couple of crude expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.





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Madeleine Sophie Barat: The legacy of Madeleine Sophie Barat can be found in the more than 100 schools operated by her Society of the Sacred Heart, institutions known for the quality of the education made available to the young. 
<p>Sophie herself received an extensive education, thanks to her brother, Louis, 11 years older and her godfather at Baptism. Himself a seminarian, he decided that his younger sister would likewise learn Latin, Greek, history, physics and mathematics—always without interruption and with a minimum of companionship. By age 15, she had received a thorough exposure to the Bible, the teachings of the Fathers of the Church and theology. Despite the oppressive regime Louis imposed, young Sophie thrived and developed a genuine love of learning. </p><p>Meanwhile, this was the time of the French Revolution and of the suppression of Christian schools. The education of the young, particularly young girls, was in a troubled state. At the same time, Sophie, who had concluded that she was called to the religious life, was persuaded to begin her life as a nun and as a teacher. She founded the Society of the Sacred Heart, which would focus on schools for the poor as well as boarding schools for young women of means; today, co-ed Sacred Heart schools can be found as well as schools exclusively for boys. </p><p>In 1826, her Society of the Sacred Heart received formal papal approval. By then she had served as superior at a number of convents. In 1865, she was stricken with paralysis; she died that year on the feast of the Ascension. </p><p>Madeleine Sophie Barat was canonized in 1925.</p> American Catholic Blog Where we spend eternity is 100 percent under our control. God’s Word makes our options very clear: we can cooperate with the grace that Christ merited for us on the cross, or we can reject it and keep to our own course.

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