Amid the blockbusters and Oscar bait of the holiday movie season, from “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” to “American Hustle,” one small character study has quietly emerged as an art house-level smash at the box office --- and a Best Picture Oscar nominee.
“Philomena” stars the legendary actress Judi Dench (nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) and British comic Steve Coogan in the story of a woman named Philomena Lee, who enlisted the help of a disgraced British journalist named Martin Sixsmith in her quest to find out what became of the son she lost to the adoption system run by Irish Catholic nuns in the 1960s.
Some have said the film is extremely anti-Catholic.
Meanwhile, another film with Oscar ambitions --- “August: Osage County,” with a Best Actress nomination for Meryl Streep and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Julia Roberts --- presents a view of heartland Protestants that could also be described as less than glowing.
Both films are released by Oscar-winning powerhouse, The Weinstein Company, filmmakers with a history of irreligious films. Both have earned mostly positive --- albeit not stellar --- reviews upon their release.
‘Philomena’: Faith amid sarcasm
At a recent appearance at the prestigious American Cinematheque in Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, acclaimed director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “High Fidelity”) was glibly defensive of “Philomena.” But with Lee herself there to make a surprise appearance endorsing the film’s take on her life, and an audience member stating they were on their third viewing of the film because they had been raised in the same convent program at the same time as Lee’s son, it became hard to deny the basic story.
Teenage girl Lee is seduced into losing her virginity, gets pregnant and enters a convent-run program for unwed mothers. In exchange for receiving medical assistance and a home in a society that would have otherwise shunned them, Philomena and other mothers perform difficult manual labor for four years and sign documents which state they will never seek out their children after adoption.
Philomena is devastated when she learns her son has been adopted without any notice or chance for her to say goodbye. She is still haunted 50 years later, yet she maintains a rigid and unshakable faith in Catholicism, and defends her beliefs against the wryly condescending comments from the atheist Sixsmith (who to be fair, comes to respect Philomena’s faith).
The revelation of what happened to her son is shown in a desolate light, despite his wildly successful legal career that likely would have not occurred if he had been trapped in poverty. The nun who controlled the adoption process is portrayed as a stern-faced, bitter scold; the younger nuns who currently run the convent lie and mislead Philomena.
And the film unleashes a stinging attack on the celibacy of nuns, and drove the audience to fits of cheering when Sixsmith declares angrily that he could never forgive them as Philomena has.
‘August’: Prayer amid resentment
No such forgiveness is found among the messy family dynamics of “August: Osage County,” in which a mostly rural and poor family reunites because they hear that their matriarch (Streep) is dying of cancer. They find it ironic that she has mouth cancer, which should provide an indication of just how poisonous they’ve been to each other over the years.
Everyone has a secret in this family, and everyone harbors resentment. Yet amid all the utterly despicable behavior, the family takes time to have a family prayer around their giant dinner table.
The designated family prayer leader dives in, in classic fundamentalist fashion, and spills forth with a never-ending entreaty to God that drives the rest of the family crazy and spurs an array of annoyed reactions. This could be cute, but instead it’s portrayed with an acidic tone that makes it clear the filmmakers and actors involved see these people as ugly hypocrites with empty prayers.
Sure, every family fights. The families who last usually rely on prayer to get through ugly arguments and tough times. But the people in “August” are portrayed as stupid and out of touch, a typical Hollywood depiction of those from a traditional Christian faith.
I’ll admit that some of the lines used in these fights work to dark comedic effect, and the all-too-rare quiet moments where Streep or Roberts calms down and attempts to make peace are nicely played and even touching. But when every character is screaming f-bombs, when the movie is basically one long, ugly dinner party without a single person you’d invite into your own house, it is simply too unpleasant to recommend.
A personal observation
As someone who grew up in Little Rock, Ark., attended college in Texas and continues to visit family in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, I’ve earned my right to wonder why modern Hollywood nearly always treats Midwesterners and Southerners with outright condescension and contempt. In my experience, a vast majority of people in the heartland and the South are kind, goodhearted and love to go to the movies when they’re not being insulted.
Remember “The Blind Side,” which focused on the true story of a white Christian woman in Texas who saved the life of a troubled black high school football player by helping him escape his rough life in housing projects? It made $250 million and scored Sandra Bullock an Oscar. I personally sat among a sold-out theater showing of it in Pelham, Ala., a full seven weeks after it opened.
“August: Osage County” is doing solid business for a movie that’s basically art house fare, but it will not resonate with the public on anywhere near the level of “The Blind Side.” Sure, not every movie has to show happy people or successful marriages, but it would be nice if movies like this one could at least have a little balance to the bile.
At least “Philomena” is balanced by Philomena’s unshakable faith and willingness to forgive the nuns. Yet New York Post film critic Kyle Smith (a conservative who nonetheless professes to be atheist) accused “Philomena” of having a relentlessly biased anti-Catholic agenda. He also noted that the movie willfully ignores the fact that unwed mothers in Ireland 50 years ago had no other place to go, with the nuns saving a generation of “unwanted” children from being aborted.
“The film doesn't mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed," Smith wrote in the New York Post. “No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up.”
When asked about the controversy and whether he tried to either attack the church or sought a balanced approach to the film’s portrayal of the nuns and their adoption system, Frears offered only a glib dismissal of the critiques.
“Are you saying the story isn’t true, that this never happened?” said Frears. “It is true, and the truth hurts sometimes. As far as I know, the criticism has only come from that one bloke. But anytime there’s a chance for controversy, Harvey Weinstein does like to blow it up.”
Frears was referring to one of the film’s executive producers, Harvey Weinstein, who has had a string of other films throughout his career --- including “Priest” and “The Magdalene Sisters” --- which have negatively portrayed the Catholic Church. Couple that with the fact that Coogan, who co-wrote the film as well, publicly admits he’s an atheist, and it’s easy to wonder.
‘The church is of the age it’s in’
When trying to decipher if the film has a blatant bias or merely offers shameful truths about systemic abuses, prominent conservative Catholic arts blogger Barbara Nicolosi says that it’s important to consider the sources behind the creation. While she hasn’t seen the film, Nicolosi said that the numerous people she has discussed it with make it sound more complex than Smith’s take.
“The Irish nuns’ adoption system is like any number of things in church history where the intention started very good but it got corrupted for many people for many reasons,” said Nicolosi, who is director of The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University.
“You had a society that only turned its back on unplanned pregnancies, especially back then. They show the church system was harsh, but the world was even harsher. There was literally no place for women with unplanned pregnancies to go back then. And if your family was humiliated by the fact, you were out in the street.
“The church is of the age it’s in, and the sins of the age can infiltrate. But if the movie was set in a secular orphanage, you would have the same problems.”
The question is, what would have happened to the child if not for the system?
“The idea,” Nicolosi said, “is not to make excuses or say the church shouldn’t behave better or different. Is there anyone in the adoption world shown as gracious, loving? What you don’t want is there to be no mercy shown. The reaction of the audience is telling. If they’re primed to cheer an act of hate, it shows something about what they’re really going for. In a movie of this nature, you just need to suggest the problem is not being Catholic but being a sinner.”
Carl Kozlowski is co-founder of www.radiotitans.com, and host of its shows "The Koz Effect" and "Kozversations."