Philomena, a movie “based on true events”, derived from a book, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search (Movie Tie-in), paints an ambivalent picture of the Catholic Church in Ireland’s past.
The church in Ireland of pre-Vatican II times cannot fail to look grim and punishing when misguided teen Philomena Lee is admitted to an institution for unwed mothers and it is discovered, upon stern questioning by the nuns who admit her, that she was unaware of what constituted sexual acts and their consequences when she was seduced into engaging in the sexual encounter which left her pregnant without benefit of clergy. The birth itself was treated by the nuns attending as penance and mortification of the flesh for the sin incurred in conceiving the pregnancy; therefore, no anaesthesia was given in spite of the fact that it existed and was widely used in childbirth in other circumstances. Philomena experienced a breech birth, and nearly joined the ranks of those young mothers and their children who were buried in the small cemetery on the grounds of the Abbey. A sympathetic nun with medical training saved her life and that of the child by having the medical knowledge to do a successful delivery. Later on, by borrowing a box camera and stealthily disobeying her religious superior, this same nun provided Philomena with the only photograph of the child she would later posses. Such ambivalence is seen throughout the movie: though the home for unwed mothers is portrayed as a glorified Magdalene institution, with an old-fashioned laundry building at which the underage inmates spent their days in hard labor, neither the institution itself, nor the nuns who ran it, are portrayed as entirely bad. Unlike in the movie The Magdalene Sisters, in Philomena, the incarcerated girls got to have contact with their children, even though it was for only an hour per day. However, the children of these unwed mothers spent the majority of their time in the orphanage facility attached to the laundry/convent/home for unwed mothers, and it was understood that they were to be placed for adoption. Unfortunately, this had the potential for traumatic separation of birth mothers and their children, as it did in Philomena’s case, when it wasn’t unusual for the children to be taken by the adoptive parents, without their birth mothers having had notice or an opportunity to properly say goodbye. The abrupt departure of her son in such a fashion haunted Philomena for years afterwards, and led to her quest, years later, to find out what had become of him. A preliminary visit to the Sean Ross Abbey led to a polite, but not very informative reception by some younger nuns, who denied the request to talk with any surviving older nuns, on the grounds that “you wouldn’t get much sense from them”. It is unknown whether the rumors repeated in the local pub concerning the convent “selling” babies to Americans occurred, but there were international adoptions from Ireland to America at that time.
According to Philomena, the unwed mothers were supposed to spend four years as free labor in these institutions after having had their babies, to pay back the debt incurred for supporting them, and if that seemed unfair, the alternative was potentially harsher and definitely uncertain: in a society which did not accept unwed mothers and illegitimate children, they had nowhere else to go. Though the unwed mothers signed adoption papers which claimed they were not ratified under duress, most lacked alternatives in Ireland when it was more heavily influenced by the Church and short on jobs.
Perhaps this explains why Philomena had been living in Britain after having retired from a career as a nurse and having had another child grow to adulthood. Because of her residence in England, she comes into contact with Martin Sixsmith, lately “sacked” from the BBC, and attempting to make a career comeback as a freelance print journalist. She becomes his “human interest story” and Martin’s investigative skills eventually lead to the discovery of the path taken by her son after his departure from the orphanage. Like many other things in the movie, there is plenty of ambivalence in this area, too. One of the things which caused her grief through the years was wondering how her son had fared in life, and not having any information or way to contact him. (The possibility of finding him was made more remote by the fact that the adoptive parents changed his name from Anthony to Michael, and took him to America.) She speculated on whether he had become a hobo, or had achieved financial success. When it was discovered that the adoptive parents had taken him to live in the USA, she wondered if he had fought in the Vietnam War, and lost limbs as a result. Finding out that her son had managed a degree of success in the USA, as adviser to two American presidents, which life with her never could have given him, must have been a relief, and given her a sense of amazement, but it couldn’t have been easy finding out that he was no longer living, and had to have had a deeply unhappy side to his life as a closeted gay Republican. She wondered if she should continue to pursue the search or to print the story.
She was persuaded to continue by Sixsmith when he pointed out that her late son had to have had a sentimental connection to his background in Ireland because of a photo in which he wore a lapel pin in the shape of a Celtic Harp. It stood to reason that he would have wanted to find out about his origins and would have wanted to have known about his birth mother. This is confirmed when they visit his former partner, who comforts Philomena and initially gives her a sense of closure by showing childhood home movies of Anthony/Michael, so she has a chance to see him grow up after the fact. (Some of the footage in this movie is actual footage of Philomena’s son, taken during his lifetime in the USA.) Another film which shows that during his lifetime, he had actually visited the nuns of the Sean Ross Abbey in search of information about his birth mother, spoils the composure and the closure, and leads to the cathartic ending. Anthony/Michael had been visibly suffering from AIDS during the time he is seen with the nuns, who stonewall his efforts to find Philomena in much the same way they had stonewalled Philomena’s inquiries about her son in the past.
When Sixsmith and Philomena return to Ireland, they rebuff the younger nuns’ politeness, and Sixsmith breaks into the nuns’ private quarters and confronts Sister Hildegarde, a wheelchair-using older nun who was alive during the time Philomena’s son was sent away. Though Sr. Hildegarde was mentally together, she was scolding, saying that she had been faithful to her vows of chastity her entire life, while the wayward girls had only themselves to blame, and were deserving of what hardships the world and the convent dished out. Unpopular views in these modern times, but considered conventional wisdom by many in that former time. While Sixsmith is denouncing her, it is Philomena who confronts Sixsmith. She tells Sister Hildegarde that she forgives her, and tells Sixsmith that this is because she doesn’t want to be “like him”, “always angry” and confrontational. While Philomena has suffered much at the hands of the church, in a particular Catholic institution, Sixsmith, who loudly proclaims himself an atheist, blaming the Church in particular and religion in general for a lot of both external and human-created misery, goes through life mad at a world seemingly without a guiding intelligence or a divine plan, while Philomena remains a practicing Catholic, devout at times, questioning at others, but presumably deriving some psychological peace from her basis of belief, known as “the consolation of faith”.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply