We’ve seen some moving tales as part of this year’s Oscar race, from the heartbreaking journey of Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave to the harrowing story of Dr. Ryan Stone’s struggle to survive outer space in Gravity. A standout among them, though, is Philomena, which chronicles a woman’s search for the son she had as a teenager and lost to forced adoption. The story goes as such: Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) had a child as an unwed teenager, and as a result was shamed, cast out from her family, and sent to live in a convent where she was punished for her perceived sin. The nuns there gave her no medication during childbirth, one of them even going so far as to say that “the pain is her penance.” After her son was born, he was put up for adoption and taken away from Philomena without warning. Fifty years later, after hiding the pain of her loss for much of her life, Philomena decides to make an attempt at tracking her son down, recruiting the aid of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in her search.
The film, nominated for Best Picture, Best Lead Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Score at the Academy Awards this Sunday, has been attracting some controversy around how it portrays the Catholic Church, with some going so far as to call it “anti-Catholic” since the movie’s nuns are shown almost exclusively as lying and manipulative. When Martin uses the word “evil” to characterize them in the film, Philomena replies, “I don’t like that word.” She then adds: “Some of the nuns were very nice!” Initially, this kind of sugarcoated optimism appears to add an extra layer of sadness to Philomena’s story. After the horrible conditions she endured at the convent, the fact that she defends the very people who put her through hell seems nothing short of tragic.
Yet, when we take a deeper look into Philomena’s life, and who she is as a person, it becomes clear that her view of the nuns (and her pleasant outlook on the world, for that matter) comes not from an unfortunate place of misperception or repression, but from her decision to embrace what happened to her and deal with it constructively.
Later in the film, Philomena says, “I don’t want to hate people.” It’s evident this tenet is close to her heart, as we see her firmly hold on to her faith and practice it throughout her journey, by always treating the people she meets with compassion. No matter what, even when others treat her poorly, Philomena’s kindness and hope to be reunited with her son outshine the adversity she faces.
In a beautiful display of faith, the real life Philomena Lee recently met with Pope Francis, and shared the hope “that his Holiness Pope Francis joins me in the fight to help the thousands of mothers and children who need closure on their own stories.” The meeting in itself is an act of tremendous faith and forgiveness toward the Church, and showcases exactly the kind of powerful devotion that Philomena repeatedly practices in life.
On the flipside from Philomena (and I believe much more relatable to most who see the film) is Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who accompanies her on the journey to find her son in the film. His real-life counterpart is responsible for the book that actor Steve Coogan and producer Jeff Pope adapted into a screenplay. In the film, Martin is practically the antithesis of Philomena. He is a lapsed Catholic turned atheist who looks at the world through a cynical lens and at first is only interested in Philomena’s story because he thinks it can get him back into journalism after a scandal left him unemployed. However, as the movie progresses, we see him warm to Philomena as he witnesses her acts of kindness and compassion. He slowly begins to see that maybe he could stand to be a little nicer to the people in his life, that maybe for his sake and theirs, he can try to make a change in himself.
Like Martin, we all have the ability to make that change, however small or great it may be. And like Martin, we all have something to learn from Philomena’s hope and devotion to her faith.