A few bad apples can spoil the barrel, they say, and there’s truth in it. But sometimes I wonder if the barrel itself, as cause of the bad apples, doesn’t need replacing. If the bad apples in this case are immoral nuns in the Roman Catholic Church, the barrel is the Church.
The Church and its ideas came into being at time when the world was radically different than it is today. Knowledge was limited, superstition rife, miracles believed in for lack of accurate explanations and understanding. The Church may have been useful and important at such a time, but why should it be now? Why all the followers, believers, devotees? If one says faith, fine. But one can have faith in anything, believe in whatever one wants, whatever is personally deemed important. The Church’s claim to be holder of some special faith is void, a historical and institutional anachronism. The claim was accepted when people knew no different, when alternatives seemed non-existent. Now they are not.
But believe in the Church if one must. If it provides comfort, solace, strength, hope, meaning, these are fine and good. But they aren’t my point. My point is what’s illustrated in the film — how bad ideas, originated by and in the Church, can cause terrible harm when administered unquestioningly by functionaries within it — in this case, rigid, dogmatic, unfeeling nuns for whom interpretations of morality in scripture were more important than actual morality based in human lives. Their dogma, created by their religion, thus may be put in the dock. No final judgement is rendered by this fine film (which is one more reason, among many, why I think it fine). Instead, the ending is deliberately kept open so that everyone can decide freely for themselves. Other judgements are for others to make. Mine is this: guilty as charged (both nuns and Church, bad apples and barrel).
Why was the child of Philomena taken from her by the wing of the Church in which she was incarcerated? Because she was declared an unfit mother. On what basis? On the fact that she was young, poor, unwed. Strike one, two, three, you’re out, you lose. No child, no motherhood.
But what the nuns and Church did not understand or care to, evidently, is that Philomena loved her baby. She loved motherhood too. She loved being a mother as much as she loved her baby. Love saturated her. Her child meant the world to her. And this love, faithful and enduring, never wavered and died.
Thus her tragedy and heartbreak.
The journalist who helps tell Philomena’s story symbolises a kind of secular conscience. He wants answers, evidence, accountability, justice. He wants villainy exposed, judged, condemned. He wants those responsible for Philomena’s suffering and loss brought to book. Which is why he’s fearless and relentless. The deeper he digs into her story the angrier he becomes. For Philomena her loss is always personal. For Martin Sixsmith, the journalist, it’s also political, and his mission becomes one of exposing the dirty politics and hypocrisies of the Church. By the end he succeeds. He locates those responsible for the injustices done to Philomena.
Philomena herself is more ambivalent. She’s a victim, true. She acknowledges it. But her journey transcends politics. Her son, deceased in adulthood, cannot be brought back. Even justice cannot do this. There are no miracles. So in a way justice is moot, pointless, futile. At least for her. Her loss is personal, so she can’t or won’t look beyond it. For her there’s no institutional evil in the Church per se. Others can make this claim for themselves if they wish. She will not.
So her story, thus open-ended, remains interesting, complicated, controversial. In some people the film touches a nerve because it goes deep into their interpretations of themselves and the world, including the Church. Thus for them a lot may ride on these interpretations. That’s my feeling at least from reading some of the commentary in other reviews of the film. So let me just state my view that civility and decency are civilised virtues and values, and that some among the religious would do well to remember this.
Since the film allows me to judge, I will.
Philomena should have had a better life with the child she loved. They should have shared their lives together (and we know from the film that the son never forgot his origins, and by extension never stopped thinking about his mother). Instead, both child and that better life were taken from her by a Grand Inquisitor called the Roman Catholic Church.
Crime doesn’t pay, they say, but I also wonder about that too sometimes.