When you go to a movie starring Judi Dench, you can be sure that you’ll be seeing something good. Whether she’s ‘M’ in a Bond movie or Philomena Lee in Philomena, Dench delivers a performance that has the kind of substance that conveys extraordinary in the ordinary. But it was not until the end of the movie when you realize you’re watching something with a powerful message of grace and forgiveness.
The film is about a journalist Martin Sixsmith helping Philomena looking for her son, who was taken away from her in a convent. The director portrays these two characters in a brilliant way that not only a ‘sad’ story becomes much more palatable through unexpected humor but maybe even unintentionally conveys a religious message through the perspective of a person who does not believe! The character Martin Sixsmith is a Catholic by membership but doesn’t really believe in God. On the other hand, Philomena remains faithful to her belief throughout the movie. While the two complement each other, the tension of belief and unbelief carries them from the beginning to the end, where it finally ‘resolves’.
I find the religious tension in this film utmost ‘interesting’ to say the least. First, the nuns do not represent the church in the best light. They lied and hid information from Philomena and her son to keep them apart. “Not very Christian, is it?” Sixsmith’s question possibly echoed what most audience think. There is a scene in the earlier part of the movie when Philomena recalled how much she enjoyed that one-time sex which gave her the illegitimate pregnancy. At first, I thought that is simply a tongue-in-cheek humor of relating to someone who has to listen to an older woman describing her sexual experience. However, towards the end of the movie, I realized that it was there as the first part of the ‘bookend’ message. Sister Hildegarde, in her old age sitting in a wheelchair, spitting words of fire as she answered Sixsmith why she did what she did. “I have kept my vows of chastity my whole life. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh, that’s what brings us closer to God! Those girls have nobody to blame but themselves and their own carnal incontinence.” With the self-righteous expression and, at the same time, disgust for all the girls who had the sinful taste of sex, it was finally clear that the nun did what she did out of bitterness! The notion was plain and simple: I didn’t get to have sex but you did. That’s why you’re getting punished! But that’s not the end of the Christian message (that the church sometimes fails horribly), there is also Philomena. This ordinary, wonderful woman, who was deprived of seeing her beloved son, was always gracious. She ensured Sixsmith that the nuns were not “evil”, that some of them were very nice. She complemented people around her that they were “one in a million”. She never held any grudges against anyone because of her misfortune. (It was Sixsmith who carried all the emotions – both for her and for the audience. He was saddened by the discovery of the death of her son. He was angry at the hypocrisy and injustice done to the mother.) But the most impressive moment came at the end when she realized what Sister Hildegarde did to her. To someone who ‘took’ her son away from her, she simply said “I forgive you” – even when the offender did not acknowledged her great offense. In those simple words of forgiveness, we could almost hear the Lord uttering the prayer he teaches us to pray: “…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” The nuns might have failed, but the church has not. Christ walked in that room where Philomena forgave!
The last scene was simple but rich in content. The unbeliever Martin Sixsmith bought a small statute of Jesus and gave it to Philomena. The implication of this simple gesture is enormous. It could symbolize the winning of a trophy. Sixsmith could be saying “Between the nun and you, you behave more like a Christian.” Or, the unbeliever could be saying “Although I don’t believe in God, I see Jesus in you.” Like Philomena said in the movie, forgiveness is not easy. It is hard. But, when we’re able to do it, anger and hatred would come to a halt. And, the world falls silent. Such is the power of grace.