03 March 2014
by Holly Price, writer for Damaris
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is lost. A BBC journalist recently fired after a brief foray into politics, he has been half-heartedly entertaining the idea of writing a book on Russian history.
But when a woman approaches him with the 50-year-old secret of a teenager whose convent sold her toddler, he scoffs. That's a human interest story. That's one direction he's certain is a dead end: "Human interest story is a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people to be read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people." And yet, perhaps, if he were to inject a little drama and reunite mother and long-lost son, he might get his career back on track.
So Martin meets Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish-Catholic widow, who– under Sixsmith's cynical gaze – might be described as the perfect protagonist of a typical human interest saga. Philomena is straight-talking; Martin is sarcastic. She is effusively kind; he, excessively snooty. She regularly attends churches to pray and confess; he cannot abide the sight of them. This delightfully mismatched pair set off in search of Philomena's lost child.
The institution and the ideal
Inspired by the investigative book The Los tChild of Philomena Lee (2009), this film portrays shocking real-life events. In Ireland,1952, Philomena Lee was sent to a convent after she fell pregnant out of wedlock. When her child was three, the church sold him for £1,000 to be adopted in America, and forced Philomena to sign a document relinquishing her right to find out what had become of him.
Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) could easily have capitalised on the emotive nature of these events, pitting the 'evil' nuns against the 'noble' mother – as Sixsmith intended at the beginning of the journey. But the true story offers a more complex narrative, and its power comes from realistic contrasts. Martin and Philomena's differing approaches to life set the scene for another juxtaposition: we witness the hypocrisy of an institution but also the integrity of a personal faith.
However broad or narrow our definition of 'the Church', as we look back on its history it's undeniable that it has at times been responsible for horrendous misrepresentations of God. If our mission is to show the world what God is like, then it is crucial that we keep asking, what is the Church best-known for? And, as the people who make up the Church, what kind of God are our lives preaching? What kind of gospel are we practising in our hearts?
Pain as penance
When he first meets her, Martin cannot help but repeatedly roll his eyes at Philomena's ostensibly simple faith – both in people and in God. As they travel to the convent and then to America, he grows increasingly confused and frustrated by it, and compensates for her graciousness by being rude instead.
While Martin may be narrow-minded when it comes to judging others, Philomena remains blinkered also. In spite of her sincere repentance, she cannot believe that God will forgive her indiscretion. The nuns insisted that her suffering would atone for her sins. But, in spite of the drudgery of convent work and the trauma of losing her son, the deadweight of guilt still hangs on Philomena, keeping her focus fixed on her past.
The heartbreaking truth is that, in reality, just as Philomena longed to be reunited with her son, God longed to be reconciled with Philomena. He voluntarily sent His son to suffer and die to atone for her sins, so that He could bring justice as well as mercy.
In fact, the truth is that God has offered forgiveness to every person, regardless of our past misdemeanours. Sceptics like Martin would decry this as 'too easy' – but it was far from easy for God to be separated from His only son. It was anything but easy for Him to pour out all the punishment for our wrongdoing on His innocent son. But He did it gladly because He loves us:
"When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed His great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:6-8, NLT).
Do we accept God's forgiveness for us – and even for those who have wronged us? How might the world be transformed if the Church was best-known for this, the most astounding human interest story of all?
Philomena is released on DVD on 24March 2014