Friday, November 15, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Sins of the Past

There were no less than 120 generally well-received films shown during the just-concluded AFI Fest 2013. For many attendees, though, this year’s most memorable and most discussed moment was Mark Wahlberg’s lengthy, foul-mouthed rant following the world premiere on November 12th of Peter Berg’s wartime saga Lone Survivor, which Wahlberg headlines. The actor (and reportedly devout Roman Catholic; Pope Francis ought to wash Wahlberg’s mouth out with soap) was apparently taking to task Tom Cruise and other fellow performers who have likened their preparation for certain roles to military training, à la the Navy SEAL training Wahlberg underwent for his film. Director Berg eventually calmed Wahlberg but the star refused to take any further questions from the post-screening moderator.

The former Marky Mark wasn’t the only one railing against perceived slights and sins during the festival’s seven days. There was plenty of finger-pointing taking place on screen too. Whether it was Julia Roberts bitterly criticizing Meryl Streep as her character’s drug-addled mother in August: Osage County, Will Forte’s underappreciated son on a road trip with Bruce Dern’s stubborn daddy in Nebraska, or Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers versus Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney over the latter’s alleged mishandling of Travers’ Mary Poppins character in Saving Mr. Banks, there was much throwing of stones on display.

Perhaps the most divisive AFI Fest film in this regard was Philomena, the Weinstein Company’s Oscar hopeful that begins its US theatrical run next week. Based on a sad but compelling true story, the film stars Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, who in the 1950’s was forced by Irish nuns to give up a son she bore out of wedlock. Lee only opened up about this episode in 2004, fifty years later. Disgraced British journalist Martin Sixsmith pursued Lee’s story and ultimately wrote a bestselling book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which served as the basis of the film. Dench is superb as always in the title role and Steve Coogan (so hilarious in 2008’s Hamlet 2) gives a strong co-starring performance as Sixsmith.

Unfortunately, I and at least a few others felt the screenplay co-written by Coogan (who also produced) and Jeff Pope hits too many false notes. This is especially true when it comes to the treatment of GLBT issues and Catholicism. Warning: potential spoilers ahead for those unfamiliar with the book or true story. You see, it is discovered that Lee’s long-lost son, born Anthony, was adopted by an American couple and grew up under a new name, Michael Hess. Hess was a gay man and successful attorney ultimately chosen by President George Bush, Sr. to be his chief legal counsel. As a Republican party insider, Hess was conflicted over his sexuality and secret, long-term relationship. Tragically, he contracted HIV and died of AIDS complications in 1995, nearly a decade before Lee and Sixsmith began searching for him.

In the film, Lee is presented as a simple, naïve woman with little interest in matters other than her strong Catholic faith. When she learns her son was gay, however, she suddenly seems to know all about GLBT issues and vocalizes such terms as “bi-curious” and “beard” (applied historically to women with whom gay men would publicly appear heterosexual). But she also, astoundingly, applies dated stereotypes to her son, claiming she always knew he was gay because he was “sensitive” as a 3-year old (what 3-year old isn’t?) and was photographed wearing “dungarees” as an adult! While all this is presented comically, I was borderline offended by the filmmakers’ misguided effort at pandering to the GLBT audience. It is especially disappointing given that the film’s director, Stephen Frears, previously made two pioneering, non-stereotypical depictions of gay life: My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears.

The Catholic Church and even God aren’t handled any more sensitively. It’s hardly news that the Church has engaged in and covered up all sorts of questionable behavior in the past. Ireland’s Church-run network of Magdalene laundries, wherein Lee found herself as a teenager, was previously exposed as abusive. The nuns in Philomena are entirely one-dimensional, with the film’s fictional Sr. Hildegard shown as downright hateful. While some viewers will cheer Sixsmith’s climactic showdown with Sr. Hildegard, his victory struck me as so assured that it rings hollow.

Philomena’s central story of regret, love and forgiveness is strong, as are the cast members’ performances. The film could have been much stronger with a more nuanced script that doesn’t veer so uneasily between comedy and drama, black and white. Gay and Catholic viewers, especially: consider yourselves warned.

In LA theaters this weekend are two Polish films that also deal with Catholicism, past sins and/or homosexuality, with a dose of anti-Semitism to boot. In the Name Of, previously reviewed here when it was shown at last summer’s Outfest, reveals the struggles of a closeted gay priest who runs a camp for troubled boys. It has insightful moments but in the end is a pretty familiar story.

Much better is Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s award-winning but controversial Aftermath (Poklosie). How controversial is it, you ask? One of its lead actors, Maciej Stuhr, has received death threats for his portrayal of a man uncovering (literally) his Catholic neighbors’ collaboration with the Nazis during World War II that led to the murders of over a hundred Jews. The film has also been banned from some cinemas in Poland by right-wing political leaders.

Ireneusz Czop co-stars as Franek, the brother of Stuhr’s character, who has returned home for the first time in twenty years from his “adopted” city of Chicago, Illinois. The two form an initially uneasy but ultimately Hardy Boys-like alliance as they strive to discover the truth about their town and family. Entirely engrossing and intelligent, apart from a couple of scenes where Franek unwisely runs alone into the dark woods when he hears mysterious noises, Aftermath serves as a testament to all those attempting to atone for humanity’s sins of the past.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Philomena: C+
In the Name Of: C+
Aftermath: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.


Seamus said...

I have to completely disagree with your review of Philomena. The truth of the extent of abuse suffered by Irish people (particularly women and children) under Catholicism will be part of storytelling for a long time to come. These stories are about the people, not the institution of Catholicism. This movie was called Philomena, not Horrible Catholics. Your bias as a priest, and your dislike that Catholicism is under the spotlight is not sufficient to dismiss this as divisive or 'hardly news'. The Vietnam war was 'hardly news', but we saw the individual stories of how real people were affected by it for decades. I sincerely hope that many more 'Philomenas' are made, to allow peoples stories to be told but also to document the impact of allowing Church to essentially become state, lest we ever think of letting it happen again.
** Spoiler Alert**
How could this tale be divisive? It was real. How could anyone try to give humanity to people who behaved towards both Philomena and her son they way they did? Please explain how you think that a smiling nun, lying to a dying man by telling him that there was no record of his mother, could be portrayed more sensitively? Not all of the nuns were portrayed one-dimensionally, but you cannot suggest there should have been more sympathy in the portrayal of the organised SALE of children taken without permission from their mothers. It was human trafficking for profit.
Personally, I found Philomena to be one of the most moving stories I have seen in a long time and would be able to recognise in the character of Philomena Lee many Irish women I know. She may have been portrayed as naive and simple from your perspective, but a lifetime as a nurse would have meant she was far from naive. Her apparent naivety was another consequence of her Irish Catholic upbringing: people, particularly women, simply never talked about sex or understanding what it meant to be gay. You are making the mistake of interpreting Philomena as if she was living in your culture and so she is simple and naive. As an Irish person I see her as a typical product of her generation in Ireland. Everyone I saw the movie with could point to someone in their family that she resembled. Judi Dench's performance was amazing. She captured the essence of a generation of Irish women very effectively with great nuance and subtlety. Women who grew up being marginalised, ignored, voiceless. People restricted to small talk, and the escapism of romance novels. This too was the reason for the inclusion of the comedy elements: it was another facet of her Irish persona. Despite all that happened to her, her strength and humanity allowed her to see the trip to America in search of her son as an adventure. Yet she still maintained her faith and was capable of forgiveness (another facet of such victims that continually amazes me). Philomena's humanity and humility contrast poignantly with the absence of both and the abject hypocrisy evidenced by the behaviour of the nuns: they punished young girls for their supposed sins, but eagerly covered up their own institutional failings and the multitude of sins such failings encompassed, burning the official records in a bonfire and lying to their victims. 'Sixsmith's climactic showdown' as you referenced it, to me was meant to represent the viewer's perspective and allow a contrast to be shown with the actions and attitudes of Philomena, to make us ask the question: if I were Philomena, could I have forgiven them, or would I have been like Sixsmith? It was a moment of recognition, of Philomena's humanity and humility and faith, in spite of all that had been done to her.
In short, as an Irish person, I think Philomena is magnificent. It captures yet another perspective on the appalling sins of Catholicism in my country very well, while demonstrating the power of faith and humanity in spite of institution. Pity about you that it tarnishes the Catholic Church along the way. Your review suggests that you need to watch many more such stories.

Reverend said...

Dear Seamus: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It sounds like we are both approaching the film from strong, contrasting but legitimate perspectives. I appreciate that you are "closer to home" when it comes to the film's story and setting. However, as a former Roman Catholic priest (and current Reformed Catholic bishop) and as a gay man, I can't NOT review a film such as "Philomena" without critiquing both its Catholic and gay content. I am curious to hear a wider range of reviews/comments once the film is released here in the U.S. next week. I hardly believe my critique is, to borrow a Catholic term, infallible. Thanks again.