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Philomena and Notre Dame (Caveat Lector: Spoilers)

I saw the movie Philomena last weekend: It is a movie about an Irish woman who had a baby out of wedlock, and  was coereced into giving up her little son nearly half a century ago by the nuns who took her in. She ends up collaborating with a posh English journalist to find out what happened to him:  As it turns out, he was adopted by a well-to-do American family, grew up to be handsome and smart, and became a lawyer.  Actually, he became a key legal strategist for the Republican party, eventually rising  to the position of Chief Legal Counsel for the Republican Naitonal Committee. Yet Philomena does not get the resolution she hoped for: it turns out her son died several years ago, his meteoric career cut short by AIDS--he was not only a Republican, but a closeted gay Republican. His ashes were buried on the grounds of the convent where he and his biological mother lived together during the first few years of his life. 

 I thought the movie was good. In fact, Judi Dench was brilliant--she acts with her entire body, not merely by emoting her lines. IMHO, they made a huge mistake in killing her off in the Bond movies--she was wonderful as M, too. 

But it wasn't great. I do not agree with this reviewer, who lavishly praised the movie's storyline.  You may say that the plot I recounted above is too incredible to make a plausible movie; but in fact, all that stuff actually did happen.  Philomena's  son Anthony became Michael Hess--"a man of two countries and many talents." Truth is stranger than fiction, and it's no crime for a storyteller to take advantage of strange truths.

At the same time, I did have  three basic problems with the film's framing of the story.

The first has to do with the portrayal of a single nun, Sister Hildegard, who was meant in the film to embody personally all the the meanness and hatefulness and shame of the Irish Church around sexuality. Actually, the big scene between Sr. Hildegard and Philomena is somewhat absurd. A ninety year old nun spews hateful words about sexual immorality at a very proper-looking woman  who is herself pushing seventy, and who is in anguish about her long-lost child.  And then, after listening to this bile, the broken-hearted mother says to the nun, "I forgive you."  

The troubles here are double, and related to each other.  First,  as she appears in the movie. Sr. Hildegard isn't actually a modern character;  she is almost a figure out of a medieval morality play.  But the trouble is, there was an actual Sr. Hildegard, who was apparently somewhat helpful in helping mothers and children find each other. Second, Philomena's proclamation about forgiveness rang false to me--what does it mean to forgive a person who is made to be a symbol of a whole institution? \A movie that depicted Philomena's forgiveness of the actual Sr. Hildegard, who had her own mixture of light and darkness, would have been something to see. 

A second basic problem with the story had to do with Michael's adopted sister. Apparently, the reason that Michael was adopted was that he was so close to the little girl that Mrs. Hess came to Ireland to adopt that she took him home too.  Yet years later, when Philomena visits her, she offers very little about him--she is taciturn, and more than a little hard. She tells Philomena that Michael had never wondered alound about their life in Ireland and his mother.  I was skeptical about the distance that had evolved betweeen these siblings ; I also found it very hard to believe that two little children adopted into an already exisiting family from Ireland wouldn't have talked about their situation.  The actress who plays Michael's sister, Mare Winningham, had a semi-mullet and screamed at her kids.  Were we supposed to glean from this the fact that she ws suffering in her way from the adoption too? And why didn't she know where he was buried? 

My third problem has to do with the general framing question that moves the plot along to its conclusion:  after we find out that Anthony/Michael is dead (about 1/2 way through the story), the plot is driven by Philomena's question, "Did he wonder about me and Ireland before he died?" Now, making this the question that drives the action makes some sense of the decision to create a semi-strained relationship between Michael and his sister.  It turns out, we don't find the answer to that question until  we meet Michael's former partner, who also (inexplicably) refuses to talk to Philomena until (at the end) he does so, and very helpfully indeed.  As it turns out, it was Michael's dying wish to be buried back in Ireland, in the very place where his mother could find him one day. And if that's the case then why wouldn't the partner open the door to Philomena in the first place?

Making Philomena's "Did he wonder or care about me?" the driving existential question of the second part of the movie also makes sense of something else from real life that was left out of the movie:  Michael Hess's Notre Dame connection. In real life, he was very proud of the fact that he did his undergraduate work in an institution suffused with American Irish-Catholic sensibilities. It would not make sense to me that a young man who knew his roots were Irish, who went to the college of the "Fighting Irish," which is itself dedicated to the Blessed Mother, would not have wanted to find out who his own biological mother was. But if the writers had mentioned that he had gone to Notre Dame, they would have totallyy undermined the plausibility of their own plot. (But it would have been great to have Judi Dench in South Bend.)

A lot of reviewers have said that this movie bashes the Church.  Others have replied that this isn't the case, because Philomena forgives Sr. Hildegard, and embodies the spirt of Christian love. Philomena in the movie stays Catholic.

But in real life, Philomena didn't raise her other children in the Church. So she forgave, but didn't forget. I think the problem is that the true difficulty of forgiveness isn't explored here; what does it mean to forgive people who wronged you? An institution who wronged you? What about her dead son--can Philomena forgive on behalf of him? All of these questions are deep--and movie Philomena's claim that she doesn't want to end up with the bitterness of her journalist companion doesn't go far enough. 


About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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Dame Judi Dench's acting is always brilliant.

This was a very compelling review, and I will certainly see this (though 've heard it's the performances alone, more or less, that make it work).

That said: "Steve Coogan is in this, y'all!" should have been in the first sentence of your review.

Here's a little context from an article in the Guardian,  "The Catholic Sold My Child" 9/18/09

When her pregnancy became obvious, her family had Philomena "put away" with the nuns. After her baby, Anthony, was born, the mother superior threatened Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word about her "guilty secret". Terrified, she kept it quiet for more than half a century. "All my life I couldn't tell anyone. We were so browbeaten, it was such a sin. It was an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock ... Over the years I would say 'I will tell them, I will tell them' but it was so ingrained deep down in my heart that I mustn't tell anybody, that I never did."

I was intrigued to know why the nuns had been so insistent on the importance of silence and secrecy. The answer, almost certainly, lay in what had happened next.

Philomena was one of thousands of Irish women sent to convents in the 1950s and 60s, taken away from their homes and families because the Catholic church said single mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children.

Such was the power of the church, and of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, that the state bowed before its demands, ceding responsibility for the mothers and babies to the nuns. For them it was not only a matter of sin and morality, but one of pounds, shillings and pence. At the time young Anthony Lee was born, I discovered that the Irish government was paying the Catholic church a pound a week for every woman in its care, and two shillings and sixpence for every baby. And that was not all.

After giving birth, the girls were allowed to leave the convent only if they or their family could pay the nuns £100. It was a substantial sum, and those who couldn't afford it – the vast majority – were kept in the convent for three years, working in kitchens, greenhouses and laundries or making rosary beads and religious artefacts, while the church kept the profits from their labour.

Even crueller than the work was the fact that mothers had to care for their children, developing maternal ties and affection that were to be torn asunder at the end of their three-year sentence. Like all the other girls, Philomena Lee was made to sign a renunciation document agreeing to give up her three-year-old son and swearing on oath: "I relinquish full claim for ever to my child and surrender him to Sister Barbara, Superioress of Sean Ross Abbey. The purpose is to enable Sister Barbara to make my child available for adoption to any person she considers fit and proper, inside or outside the state. I further undertake never to attempt to see, interfere with or make any claim to the said child at any future time."

Philomena says she fought against signing the terrible undertaking. "Oh God, my heart. I didn't want him to go. I just craved and begged them to please let me keep him. None of us wanted to give our babies up, none of us. But what else could we do? They just said, 'You have to sign these papers.'"

It is heartbreaking to read of the intransigence of the nuns when mother and son came searching separately decades later. There were painful consequences for both of not knowing the truth.

"Now in her 70s, and five years after visiting her son's grave for the first time, Philomena is remarkably devoid of bitterness. ...But she blames herself for everything, for giving her son away and for not speaking out about him earlier, when things could have been different: "If only, if only. I curse myself every time I think of it. If only I'd mentioned it all those years ago, maybe he wouldn't ... Oh Lord, it makes my heart ache! I'm sure there are lots of women to this very day – they're the same as me; they haven't said anything.

"It is the biggest regret of my life and I have to bear that. It is my own fault and now it is my woe."

Forgiveness? That really is the question.


Thank you, Carolyn.

THAT really gives us the context.

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