Could You, Should You Forgive?: Steve Reflects on Philomena

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. So we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, but are you able to forgive? The answer to that question probably depends on who hurt you and how deeply they hurt you. What if you were hurt by the Church itself, or at least philomenaby those who were representing the Church? What if they not only hurt you, but also did everything in their power to convince you (and anyone else who would listen) that you were in fact the guilty party? What if they heaped shame upon the original abuse? Could you forgive them? Should you forgive them? Is it not possible that their offenses are beyond forgiveness, at least human forgiveness? Those are the issues we are faced with in Philomena.

When I saw Philomena I entered the theater with some trepidation, fearing a movie experience that would become strident as the Church was bashed for its offenses, but I was relieved that the movie had much more to offer than merely holding the Church accountable for its deplorable actions. It does hold the Church accountable, particularly the Irish Catholic Church of fifty years ago, exposing its cruel treatment of young, unwed mothers who were required to work in the harsh conditions of the abbey’s laundry. Even more harsh was the way that at least some of the nuns took advantage of every available opportunity to rub the faces of these girls in their shame, announcing that their suffering was penance for their sins. The worst of that suffering came with the forced adoptions of their children.

The nuns had a point. God had given laws regarding adultery. Had these girls broken those laws? Certainly, they had. Did they need to face the consequences of their actions? Again, the answer is yes. However, this is where we come face to face with a vital spiritual truth. We need the law. We need its guidance and we especially need it to reveal our brokenness, but we even more desperately need the Gospel, the gift of God’s grace, which brings new life. When we get stuck in the law, as those nuns in the Irish Church were, we become nasty and the Church becomes a place of death rather than a place of life. Is it possible to “reprove our neighbor” as the Bible tells us to while at the same time loving our neighbor, which the Bible is even clearer about? Those young women clearly felt the criticism, but did they also experience the love?

Philomena was one of those young women. Having lost her mother at a young age, after an unwise decision she found herself pregnant and abandoned by her father at the abbey. While at the abbey, the nuns essentially steal her son and they try to rob her of her self worth. Both of those abuses will haunt her in the years to come. It would not have been surprising if she had left the Church, but throughout her life both God and the Church remain vital to her. Why would she remain in an institution that had caused her such pain? Was she that naïve? Although the movie portrays her as a very simple woman, she is not naïve. She is able to distinguish between those who hurt her and other nuns who treated her well, especially one young nun who was a messenger of grace. Her faith becomes one of the poles in the dialectic that develops in the movie.

The other pole involves the journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who ends up helping her search for her son. On her son’s fiftieth birthday, she decides that she has kept the secret long enough and she wants to find out what happened to her son. Sixsmith happens to be in need of work. He previously held a high position working for the Labor Party, but was forced out in disgrace, even though he had done nothing wrong. The injustice increases his cynicism and adds anger to it. He considers writing human interest stories as being beneath him, but he needs a project, so he agrees to work with Philomena. On a trip to the abbey, they find that the new administrators add to the sins of the past by giving Philomena the run-around. Sixsmith’s anger gets attached to the Church and increases as each offensive truth is revealed. Finally, his anger explodes and it would be easy to simply side with him. A lesser movie would have done just that. However, as I said, this movie offers us more to grapple with than that. Philomena responds to the revelations in a more complex manner. I won’t spoil the movie by revealing her response, because you simply have to see this movie!


Two Testosterone-fueled Treats: Steve Recommends Drive and Warrior

Once again this year both a crime movie and a movie about fighters find their way into upper end of my rankings. As Ray Davies sang in “Lola,” that great song by the Kinks, “Well, I’m not the world’s most masculine man,” but there is something about these kinds of movies that really gets my blood pumping. On the crime scene I’ve recently fallen for Animal Kingdom, In Bruges, Gone Baby Gone, and, of course, No Country for Old Men. This year it is the magnificent Drive that fills that spot. As for those fighters, in the past couple of years I’ve been captivated by The Wrestler and The Fighter, and this year, amazingly enough, by a mixed martial arts movie, Warrior.

As is often the case in crime movies, dating back to the film noir era, Drive is driven by atmosphere. From the opening sequence, it sets forth a mood and I was totally sucked in. Ryan Gosling delivers as the driver. Is there a better young actor working today? He conveys so much with a look, a gesture. Even the way that he moves his hands on the steering wheel is incredibly cool. His character is intriguing. On the one hand, he is so gentle in reaching out to his neighbor’s young son. On the other hand, he makes it clear that he is not someone you want to mess with. His calm exterior hides a truly frightening rage. That points to the one aspect of the movie that I wish had been handled differently. It is ultra-violent. I can’t stress that too much. I do recommend the movie, but with the warning that the violence is very graphic. The movie does ask an interesting question, how do you do what is right in a situation where there are no right answers?

In many ways I am surprised that I liked Warrior as much as I did. I’m certainly not a fan of mixed martial arts. In fact, I have never watched a single match. The movie seems to include every sports movie cliché and a key element of the plot stretches credibility to the breaking point. There is going to be a big MMA tournament featuring the sixteen top fighters in the world with a five million dollar winner-take-all prize. Two brothers come out of nowhere to make it into the field of sixteen! Despite that ridiculous premise, the movie works. It works because of the performances by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as the brothers and Nick Nolte as their father. Nolte is well deserving of his Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. As is the case with The Wrestler and The Fighter before it, the strength of the film is not the fighting in the ring, but the complexity of the relationships outside the ring. The unique twist here is that the struggles outside lead to an encounter inside. I’m really not giving anything away by revealing that the brothers face one another in the final bout. Despite the inevitable outcomes of the earlier fights, they are still fun to watch. Since both brothers carry equal weight in the movie, the outcome of their match could go either way. This movie is really about the long, hard road to forgiveness and, for that reason, well worth watching.