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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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Lorenzo Ruiz and Companions: Lawrence (Lorenzo) was born in Manila of a Chinese father and a Filipino mother, both Christians. Thus he learned Chinese and Tagalog from them and Spanish from the Dominicans whom he served as altar boy and sacristan. He became a professional calligrapher, transcribing documents in beautiful penmanship. He was a full member of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary under Dominican auspices. He married and had two sons and a daughter. 
<p>His life took an abrupt turn when he was accused of murder. Nothing further is known except the statement of two Dominicans that "he was sought by the authorities on account of a homicide to which he was present or which was attributed to him." </p><p>At that time three Dominican priests, Antonio Gonzalez, Guillermo Courtet and Miguel de Aozaraza, were about to sail to Japan in spite of a violent persecution there. With them was a Japanese priest, Vicente Shiwozuka de la Cruz, and a layman named Lazaro, a leper. Lorenzo, having taken asylum with them, was allowed to accompany them. But only when they were at sea did he learn that they were going to Japan. </p><p>They landed at Okinawa. Lorenzo could have gone on to Formosa, but, he reported, "I decided to stay with the Fathers, because the Spaniards would hang me there." In Japan they were soon found out, arrested and taken to Nagasaki. The site of wholesale bloodshed when the atomic bomb was dropped had known tragedy before. The 50,000 Catholics who once lived there were dispersed or killed by persecution. </p><p>They were subjected to an unspeakable kind of torture: After huge quantities of water were forced down their throats, they were made to lie down. Long boards were placed on their stomachs and guards then stepped on the ends of the boards, forcing the water to spurt violently from mouth, nose and ears. </p><p>The superior, Antonio, died after some days. Both the Japanese priest and Lazaro broke under torture, which included the insertion of bamboo needles under their fingernails. But both were brought back to courage by their companions. </p><p>In Lorenzo's moment of crisis, he asked the interpreter, "I would like to know if, by apostatizing, they will spare my life." The interpreter was noncommittal, but Lorenzo, in the ensuing hours, felt his faith grow strong. He became bold, even audacious, with his interrogators. </p><p>The five were put to death by being hanged upside down in pits. Boards fitted with semicircular holes were fitted around their waists and stones put on top to increase the pressure. They were tightly bound, to slow circulation and prevent a speedy death. They were allowed to hang for three days. By that time Lorenzo and Lazaro were dead. The three Dominican priests, still alive, were beheaded. </p><p>In 1987, Blessed John Paul II canonized these six and 10 others, Asians and Europeans, men and women, who spread the faith in the Philippines, Formosa and Japan. Lorenzo Ruiz is the first canonized Filipino martyr.</p> American Catholic Blog We don’t have to scrub off our sin so God can love us. Instead, when we allow God’s healing love to touch us, we want to leave sin behind. Growth starts in love, not in guilt.

 
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