Amidst all the hype and debate surrounding this year’s flood of faith-related films--Noah, God is Not Dead, and Heaven is For Real--a quiet Oscar winner from 2013, recently released to DVD, provides the most compelling story of faith I’ve seen on the big screen in years.
(Well, technically I saw it on the little screen on Delta Flight 1768 from Seattle to Atlanta, which is pretty much the only way I see any movies these days…but, hey, at least the cookies and pretzels are free.)
Philomena traces the heart-wrenching journey of a devout Irish woman (played by the incomparable Judi Dench) who sets out to find her long lost son, whom she was forced to give up for adoption as a teenager by nuns who kept her like a prisoner in a convent full of other unwed mothers in the 1950s.
Her unlikely partner in this venture is a washed-up journalist named Martin Sixsmith (played brilliantly by British comic actor Steve Coogan) who somewhat reluctantly finds himself chronicling this “human interest story.”
The film is based on a true story as detailed in Sixsmith’s book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and is at once laugh-out-loud funny and excruciatingly sad. (The downside to watching a great movie on a plane? Crying in front of your seatmate.)
The dialog is smart and playful, the tone pitch perfect, the acting superb. Dench totally nails her role as the provincial, inexperienced Philomena, who annoys the skeptical Martin with her old-fashioned sensibilities and penchant for lowbrow romance novels. The dialog between the two alternates between hilarious and profound, and their relationship totally makes the film. (In one scene, Philomena asks Martin if he believes in God, and in response, he delivers a lengthy, anxious soliloquy about the impossibility of answering that question and the arrogance of certainty in the face of the unknown. When he asks Philomena the same question, she simply responds. “Yes.”)
But neither character is portrayed one-dimensionally. Both are imperfect, sympathetic, complicated, and surprising.
Unlike God Is Not Dead, where the atheist professor is portrayed as blindly antagonistic toward people of faith, Martin’s frustrations with religion are reasonable and relatable, especially given the circumstances, and I found myself nodding along as he urged Philomena to confront the evil done to her by the Church.
“I don’t like that word, evil,” responds Philomena.
“No, evil’s good,” he assures her, “story-wise.”
Yet time and again, Philomena confounds both Martin and the audience with a faith that is at once understated and brave, quiet and profound. In the end, the two come together in a powerful moment in which Martin, though he is justifiably angry and fed up with the abuses of the convent that betrayed Philomena, nevertheless purchases a gift for her from their gift shop, to be presented with love at one of her most vulnerable moments.
It’s unusual to find a movie in which one relates so powerfully to both the person of unshakable faith and the skeptic. But with Philomena, I did. What I loved most about this movie was the way it so honestly and carefully explored the tension of holding faith in the midst of abuses of that faith. I can’t think of a movie that does this better.
While the debates rage on about whether Noah is biblical enough, Heaven is For Real true enough, and God is Not Dead profitable enough, Philomena delivers a quiet, understated, and powerful portrayal of the actual human experience, where clear-cut lines between good and evil, heroes and villains, right and wrong might be good “story-wise” but don’t reflect the reality most people of faith actually live in.
It’s a movie I’ll be thinking about for months, maybe years, long after I descended from 31,000 feet.
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