Sunday, 3 November 2013

Thoughts on "Philomena" [UPDATED]

Philomena has gone on general release in Britain this weekend, after premiering in the UK during the London Film Festival. It is a film that is recommended. A screen caption indicates that the film has been "inspired by true events", so one should perhaps see it as representing the story rather than following it exactly in every respect.  Martin Sixsmith's book is probably where one needs to go to find the story in an exact form: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. [UPDATE: This piece by the real Philomena at the MailOnline gives some indication of where the film varies from the exact story, and gives a perhaps more realistic picture of Philomena's character. A Google search will throw up a number of media reviews. The MailOnline are also now reporting the response of the religious order involved in Philomena's story to the film: Hit film makes us look like villains, say nuns: Judi Dench movie Philomena 'twisted the truth'. The MailOnline report is based on this report at The Tablet.]Nothing in watching the film suggests that it is misleading in any way, though I make that observation as someone who has no immediate experience of Catholic life in Ireland or of the environment of "cover up" that has characterised the Catholic Church's response to historical abuse.

The World Catholic Association for Communications (SIGNIS) jury at this year's Venice Film Festival gave its award to Philomena:
The SIGNIS Award went to the film Philomena, of Stephen Frears (United Kingdom), a film about an elderly woman who has fought during all her life to find her son, taken from her and given in adoption by the nuns of the convent where she was abandoned by her family after becoming pregnant. In its citation, the jury explains that the Award was given to the film “for its vibrant and touching portrait of a woman whose faith sets her free. In her search for the truth, she is further liberated from the burden of the injustice done to her, when she overcomes it with forgiveness”.  
Philomena was widely greeted by critics and audiences, and went on to receive the award of the official jury of the Festival to the best screenplay, as well as the award of the Interfilm jury. It is particularly interesting that, apart from obtaining the Catholic and Protestant awards, it received the award of the Italian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, in a striking demonstration that cinema is indeed polysemous.
The Catholic Church does not come out of the film without some criticism. One of the representative aspects of the film is the dialogue between Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as Martin Sixsmith). At times it is Sixsmith who appears to lead by bringing to light a naivety on the part of Philomena in terms of her relationship to the Church and to the sisters in whose care she had lived as a young girl as they respond to her situation. To me this appeared most clearly in the discussions around sexuality - Sixsmith arguing that surely if God has given us a sexual faculty we should enjoy it, while Philomena, recognising that she enjoyed her one night stand, still seemed to retain some sense of discretion (by which I mean shame in its most healthy sense) about it. At other times, it is Philomena who seems to take the lead - as in the closing scenes where she insists on forgiveness over and against Sixsmith who determinedly refuses to forgive, Philomena asserting that she does not want to hate people like he does.

What remains utterly incomprehensible, though, is the somewhat condescending attitude of the sisters towards Philomena as she visits them trying to gain information about the son they had sent for adoption. Whilst sister appears very gentle and caring in the reception room, she nevertheless blocks as strongly as she possibly can any possibility for Philomena to gain the information she wants. When, at the end of the film, it emerges that Anthony is in fact buried in the grounds of the very convent in which this blocking action takes place, one cannot help but recognise a deeply rooted dishonesty on the part of these religious. As portrayed in the film, this dishonesty is not only a dishonesty on the part of individual sisters, but a dishonesty at the level of the institution of the religious community itself.

In the final scenes, an elderly sister defends the treatment given to Philomena (and, by implication, the other girls in the care of the convent) as being a punishment for their immorality, something they brought on themselves, and contrasts it with the virtue of her own life of self-denial. Some of that treatment has earlier in the film been described as "evil" (though Philomena herself is shown as not sharing the use of that term), and I suspect that it is the behaviour of the elderly sister portrayed in these last scenes that prompts one newspaper review I have seen to refer to the behaviour of the sisters as "pure evil".  What is most striking in this scene is that, while Philomena is shown as forgiving the said sister and Martin Sixsmith as refusing it, the elderly sister herself does not even seem to appreciate that a question of forgiveness exists at all.

The Catholic Church in Ireland does have a very striking counter-example to the practice with regard to unmarried mothers reflected in the film Philomena. It lies in the work of the Regina Coeli hostel operated in Dublin by the Legion of Mary. This opened in 1930, and part of its work was intended to provide an environment in which unmarried mothers could keep the care of their children - with no other such arrangement existing anywhere in Ireland at the time. The fullest account that I can quickly find of the work of this hostel is on pp.91-98 of Finola Kennedy's Frank Duff: A Life Story. The arrangements in the hostel, operated by volunteers from the Legion, seemed deliberately to go against that of the provision in convents at the time:
Every woman would pay a small contribution towards her keep, and a "task system" of laundry or domestic work would be avoided at all costs.... The object was to create a "home-life feeling about the place". Duff stressed that the surrounding should be as beautiful as possible because "the silent influence of beautiful and artistic surroundings is incalculable"...

In the first week fifteen women were admitted to the hostel. Soon after the opening, a pregnant woman sought admission. Her entry to the hostel and keeping her child led to the inauguration of the Mater Dei aspect of the hostel, a type of hostel within a hostel specifically organized on the basis of units for mothers and children. One of the mothers in each unit elected to stay at home and care for the children, while the others took jobs to pay for household costs. Thus began a revolutionary system for assisting lone mothers to keep their children.
The depth of Frank Duff's feelings in favour of enabling single mothers to successfully keep the care of their children is revealed in a letter written in 1970, forty years after the opening of the hostel, a letter which has earlier recognised the opposition to its work. The following observation from that letter, cited by Finola Kennedy on p.98 of her book, is indeed extremely hard hitting in the context of the events portrayed in Philomena and the recent legalisation of abortion in Ireland:
I find it a little difficult in my own mind to make a broad differentiation between the determined separating of the unmarried mother from her child and the relieving of the unmarried mother from her unwanted child by way of abortion. Deep down it seems to me that those two processes have an identical root. This root would be the denial of the fact that a spiritual relationship of the supremest order exists between a mother and her child, inclusive of the unborn child.

UPDATE: Among the reviews now appearing on Google is one at the Guardian. This is not particularly sympathetic to the Catholic Church - though its description of the process of adoption experienced by Philomena/Anthony as 
.... stealing babies from vulnerable teenagers, selling them overseas and then preventing them tracing their parents by burning records of the transactions...
is pretty much what the film portrays though, for the record, it is not clear from the real Philomena's account in the MailOnline  whether or not any money was paid to the sisters at the time of adoption. It is the final paragraph of the review, though, that prompts my linking to it (with my italics added):
At the end of the film, it's Martin who's bitter and confounded. Philomena, for all that she's been through, is both cheery and serene. Such is the priceless reward that only her faith can yield. How she managed to cling to it while it slipped from Martin's grasp remains beyond his understanding. Yet her ingenuousness turns out to have been more productive than his scepticism. The Catholic church survives its scandals, Philomena's story shows us, because it delivers the goods.
SECOND UPDATE:  The MailOnline are also now reporting the response to the film of the religious order involved in Philomena's story: Hit film makes us look like villains, say nuns: Judi Dench movie Philomena 'twisted the truth'. The MailOnline report is based on this report at The Tablet. Perhaps the most significant points made in the response are that the elderly sister portrayed in the film's final scene,  a scene added in the film and not occurring in Martin Sixsmith's book, had in fact been instrumental in reuniting many mothers with their children.  The sister speaking for the order also denies that any records were destroyed and said they never received any payment in relation to adoption. What I have written in my original post will indicate that I believe the film represents a dialogue - in the film this occurs between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith - exploring the Catholic Church's participation in and response to the abuse involved, rather than any anti-Catholic diatribe. In this, I agree with the observation reported of the film makers at the end of this MailOnline report, and can understand the representive/dramatic character of the addition of the final scene.

UPDATE AT 2nd MARCH 2014: Oscar Night

This is the text of a comment I posted at another blog, responding to a critical stance towards the film.

1. In evaluating the film Philomena, I do think it is useful to be aware of where the film differs from the actual events that, to quote the film’s credits, “inspired” the film. The statement from the Sisters reported in the Tablet is useful in this. There are other significant differences too. In real life, for example, Philomena Lee did not accompany Martin Sixsmith to the United States, something that is quite central to the narrative of the film. If I understand correctly, too, Philomena was for many years not a practising Catholic, where the film suggests that she is.
2. I do not believe the film to be an anti-Catholic film. One feature of the film is a kind of dialogue between (sceptical) Martin Sixsmith/Steve Coogan and the (believing) Philomena/Judi Dench around their respective responses to the situation of Philomena’s search for her son and the difficulties to this search presented by the sisters. This gives the film a representative rather than a literal/documentary character – and it is in this context that I think the final scenes (which show Sr Hildegard in a less than positive light) need to be understood. While it may be legitimate for the sisters to point out that Sr Hildegard as portrayed in the film, is not the real Sr Hildegard, nevertheless the significance of what her character represents in the film is something that needs to be recognised.
3. I believe the film usefully represents different responses to the experience of women such as Philomena, and represents those responses in a genuine dialogue with each other rather than as conflicting ideologies.
4. The obstructive attitude of the sisters to Philomena’s efforts to find her son, as portrayed in the film, is utterly incomprehensible – and it was that which struck me rather more in watching the film than Sr Hildegard’s unfeeling attitude portrayed in the final scenes. So far as I have been able to determine, the representative character of the film in this regard is accurate to the real events. (I would be happy to be corrected if this is wrong …) The unfortunate aspect of the sisters statement, as reported, is that it does not appear to address this aspect of the film, and nor does it appear to address the practice of involuntary adoption.
4. I recommend seeing the film. As the SIGNIS jury indicated when they gave Philomena their award at the Venice Film Festival: the Award was given to the film “for its vibrant and touching portrait of a woman whose faith sets her free. In her search for the truth, she is further liberated from the burden of the injustice done to her, when she overcomes it with forgiveness”. By all means be aware of where the film differs from reality … but that does not undermine the film’s real and quite genuine value.
[And for the journalists ... there is a sub-theme involving the ethics of journalistic practice ...I missed it watching the film, and only recognised it after reading reviews.]


Shirelands Goldadors said...

Thankyou for this Joe - I have read the book and didn't realse the film was based on that. Just love your info re Frank Duff...

Joe said...

I have to admit that the quote from Frank Duff's letter I use at the end completely stunned me though I already knew about the Dublin hostels. I haven't read Finola Kennedy's book cover to cover, so I came across the quote out of the blue as I wrote this post.

Joe said...

I have to admit that the quote from Frank Duff's letter I use at the end completely stunned me though I already knew about the Dublin hostels. I haven't read Finola Kennedy's book cover to cover, so I came across the quote out of the blue as I wrote this post.

Shirelands Goldadors said...

My friend Francis Phillips has a review of the book here:

Shirelands Goldadors said...

Post on CH

el escorpion said...

how anyone after knowing what went on with these evil people can allow themselves to be associated with anything catholic is beyond the imagination, they bring evil to new levels.

Joe said...

I think we continue our association with things Catholic because there is more to the story than just the evil that some Catholics have done. There are also other Catholics who have lived outstanding lives, and it is these we try to follow. Perhaps we need to tell more of our "good stories" whilst remaining realistic about our bad ones.

Ronk said...

Although mentioning the Legion of Mary's wonderful work in helping unmarried mothers bring up their babies, you don't mention that the main problem with the film is the utterly false impression it gives that removing babies from their reluctant mothers was a Catholic idea, or was initiated by the Church or inspired by Church doctrine.

Removing babies from reluctant unwed mothers was the universal policy of all governments at the time and for decades after all around the world including in countries where Catholics are a minuscule proportion of the population. And it was supported by the vast majority of the population. It is either disingenuous or very ignorant to now exporess shock that it happened, or to blame the Catholic Church for it.

One might also mention that at the same time, children were being "saved" i.e. kidnapped from the streets of Boston and New York, with tacit or explicit Government approval, regardless of whether their parents were married or loving, merely because the children were Catholic (or in some cases "looked Catholic") and sent to be adopted (as free labour) by Protestant couples in isolated farms and small towns in the Western and Midwestern USA. Nobody wants to make a film about that it seems.

Joe said...

Ronk: Thank you for your observations. My responses follow:

1. In my original post, I indicate what I believe to be the representative character of the film. I stand by what I suggest there: I believe the part played by the religious involved in the story that inspired the film has been accurately represented.
2. It is true that the Irish state authorities played a part in the adoption of orphan babies by American families - if only by issuing passports so that they could travel to America. This aspect of the matter is explored more fully in Martin Sixsmith's book; it is ignored in the film. You are right to draw attention to it. However, that the religious orders and Church authorities were ready collaborators in the mother-and-baby homes and in the involuntary adoptions - and, arguably, the lead collaborators - with the state authorities means that this omission from the film does not have the effect of mis-representing their role.
3. I do not have any reason to believe that the apologetic offered by religious for their participation in the arrangements that are the subject of the film, and which is represented (emphasis on the word represented) by the character of Sr Hildegarde in the closing scenes, was not a part of the currency of the times. In Ireland, it also appears to have been part of the societal culture. How far this was an authentic understanding of Catholic teaching ... looking back, we would say not due to its unforgiving and lack of pastoral character ... nevertheless, at the time it was seen as Catholic practice and would have been seen as being in accord with Catholic doctrine.
4. That films about other instances of involuntary adoptions have not been made does not appear to me to make Philomena problematic. The field of journalism and some of its shady practices is treated in Philomena as a parallel plot-line.]
5. It is worth recognising that the film ("inspired" by true events, not "based" on true events, as the opening credits indicate) tells a different story than the original book. The film tells a representative story about Philomena herself, and offers a kind of dialogue around the issues raised by the historic events of the mother-and-baby homes and the involuntary adoptions. The book sets out to tell much more the story of Michael Hess/Antony, Philomena's child. There are many respects in which the film differs from the real story, and not only those that have caused comment among Catholics. The film makers have described this as "artistic licence"; I have used the term "representative character" to describe it. The film seems to me to portray both Michael/Antony and Philomena in a more purely positive way than does the book - where down sides, particularly to Michael/Antony's life, are much more apparent.

Whilst Philomena might be a film that is challenging for the Catholic Church, I do not think it is a film that we should accuse of giving a false impression of the events that inspired it.