Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Philomena" and "Spotlight": the two-fer review

The Catholic Church is the oldest form of institutional Christianity. As early as the late second century after the death of Jesus, the Church already had physical houses of worship (before these, there were the "house churches" that dotted the Mediterranean shores of northern Africa and southern Europe, but house churches weren't united as an institution, per se) as well as an ecclesiastical hierarchy that included bishops like Saint Irenaeus, who wrote Adversus Haereses, i.e., Against Heresies, a treatise against the coeval rise of Gnosticism. Well before Church fathers like the "Triples A's" of Anselm, Augustine, and Aquinas, a theology was being formed, heresies were being combatted, beliefs and behaviors were being brought into line as the Roman Church's structure rapidly solidified. Just as the Milky Way took only 4% of the universe's current age to become a recognizable galaxy, the Church, as an institution, came into being very quickly in Christian history. By human reckoning, if not by geologic reckoning, the Church is an ancient, venerable system that has grown to encompass 1.2 billion believers. Along with being old, then, the Church is huge, glorying in a massive accumulation of history, tradition, and teaching authority (magisterium).

Institutions are human, of course—the Church's claims to be the Body of Christ notwithstanding. I used to think of all institutions as necessarily evil, given their tendency toward stifling bureaucracy and their possession of an intricate corporate structure filled with dark corners that are the breeding ground for fraud, graft, and a host of other human vices. But in truth, institutions are merely social structures composed of human beings, some well-intended, some not. Institutions are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but I will say this: when an institution like the Roman Church goes bad, it goes very bad.

A while back, I reviewed "Calvary," a movie whose central concept enfolds both the native goodness and native badness of the Church. "Calvary" is about an angry man who was sexually abused by a priest when he was a child, and who is now out for revenge. His purpose is to murder a priest by the end of the week—not just any priest, but an innocent one, a good man, because the death will have that much greater of an impact. The movie introduces us to Father James, a good and decent priest, who is to be the target of the angry man's wrath. In this way, the movie balances the evil of the assaulting priest with the goodness of the innocent priest, both of whom are members of the same institution. "Calvary" is a fascinating and compelling drama that leaves it up to the viewer to figure out where he or she stands on the question of the sinfulness of the Church.

Since "Calvary," I've watched two other Church-related movies, "Spotlight" and "Philomena," both of which tell stories of deep and widespread malfeasance. "Spotlight" focuses largely on the tragedy of systematic sexual assault by priests; "Philomena" focuses instead on the personal journey of one woman who had been wronged by the Church years earlier.

"Spotlight" is an ensemble film in the exposé spirit of movies like "All the President's Men." The plot is a slow burn as greater and greater evidence of ecclesiastical wrongdoing accumulates. The movie stars Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Michael Keaton as Walter "Robby" Robinson, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee, Jr., Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll, Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, and Billy Crudup as Eric MacLeish.

The Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative team of journalists tends to concentrate on stories that require weeks or months of careful research before any articles can be published. A new editor has taken over, Marty Baron (Schreiber), and Baron is intensely interested in following a potential story about priestly abuse of youth in the Boston area. Baron quietly insists that the Spotlight team drop everything and refocus its efforts on this story; team members, unsure of who Baron is and what his agenda might be, are initially hesitant, but the story itself proves compelling enough to suck the entire team into its appalling vortex. We, the viewers, feel dawning horror as the team begins to realize just how extensive the abuses and coverups are—how high the scandal goes in the Church's hierarchy, how many priests have been abusive and transferred around, and how many years this ugliness has been going on. The movie ends when the story has been published, and Spotlight's hotline phones begin ringing off the hook as even more people begin to call in to relate their own stories of Church-fueled tragedy.

The movie shows journalism in its best light. Let's face it: these days, journalists aren't known for their virtue or nobility. But the Spotlight team is depicted as likable and dedicated; there are interpersonal conflicts, such as the one between the hot-headed Rezendes (Ruffalo, doing a very strange accent) and Robinson (Keaton), but for the most part, the group is a paragon of teamwork. Even for those of us who remember the actual scandal (which happened right around the time I was in grad school), the movie manages to hold our attention. Hats off to the actors and the director for putting together a truly engrossing—and searingly painful—story.

"Philomena," by contrast, is a more private tale of an older Irishwoman, Philomena Lee (the excellent Dame Judi Dench), who had her son taken away from her years earlier by the Catholic Church. The Church scandal in this movie isn't sexual abuse, but a different sin altogether: in 1950s Ireland, girls who became pregnant out of wedlock were often sent to convents where they would be assigned work as a sort of penance. When these girls gave birth at the convent, their children were sold to foreign parents (American, in Philomena's case and many others) who had been looking to adopt. The young mothers had no say in their children's destinies; the pious assumption was that, by having lost their virtue before marriage, the young ladies had given up the right to any maternal claim whatsoever. Losing the child was yet another form of penance. The monstrousness of ripping a child from her mother and profiting from it forms the backdrop of this tale.

Philomena teams up with down-on-his-luck journalist Martin Sixsmith (an agreeably subdued Steve Coogan), a world-weary sort who normally avoids "human interest" stories, but who has recently lost his prestigious governmental post and is looking for something to do other than write a book on Russian history. Together, Philomena and Sixsmith visit the old convent where Philomena had been housed; when no information is forthcoming, they travel to America to follow a lead, and that's where they discover Philomena's son's fate. Since this happens around halfway through the movie, I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that Philomena's son, who was gay, is discovered to have died of AIDS after working as a member of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Originally named Anthony, the boy was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents.

Philomena, guilt-ridden, openly wonders whether Anthony/Michael ever thought about his roots, about his real mother. Sixsmith discovers, by looking through photos of Michael, that Michael had often worn a very Irish lapel pin—a Celtic harp. Sixsmith deduces from this that Michael actually cared very much about his Irish heritage, which means he must have spared at least some thoughts for his birth mother. As Philomena and Sixsmith meet more Americans who knew Michael, they discover that, while Michael was dying of AIDS, he made a trip to Ireland, to the very convent where he had been born, in an attempt to find his mother. The nuns at the convent apparently told Michael that his mother had abandoned him, and that the sisters had lost contact with Philomena. One final twist: Michael's lover Pete arranged to have Michael buried at the convent's cemetery. He had been under Philomena's nose all along.

Enraged by the Church's treatment of Philomena, Sixsmith storms into the convent, intending to confront the nun most responsible for Philomena's decades-long misery. He finds the nun, Sister Hildegarde, but the sister lacks any remorse. Philomena, upon seeing Sixsmith's rage, surprises him by saying she forgives the Church for what it did to her. She holds no animosity toward anyone, and actually pities Sixsmith for his constant anger and cynicism. In the end, however, Philomena consents to having her story published, which obviously means the Church will be implicated in this scandal—especially as Philomena was not alone in having a child sold off to rich foreigners.

The story of "Philomena" is quietly linear; it's a simple plot to follow. The narrative is greatly helped by the talented presences of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, who play off each other with buddy-cop enthusiasm. Dench's Philomena sometimes comes across as daffy but well-intended; at the same time, Philomena spent years working as a nurse, so despite her eternally cheerful nature, she has been exposed to some of the worst that humanity has to offer.

The movie presents an interesting and subtle ethical question that, while not being the focus of the story, is nevertheless distracting: is Philomena a noble person for being able to forgive the Church, or is forgiveness easy for her because she has a naturally sunny, forgiving nature? Are effort and struggle components of moral conduct, or can one simply be moral without any struggle at all? Is an action morally worthy if it requires no soul-searching?*

In the end, I think that both "Spotlight" and "Philomena" are worth your attention. Stories like these help keep the Church honest when the Church itself would rather change the subject. No matter how old or venerable or tradition-laden an institution is, it will always be rife with human imperfections. Movies like these help, in some measure, to draw that poison out.



*Philomena does tell Sixsmith that saying "I forgive you" to Sister Hildegarde was difficult. But what grounds do we have to believe this?


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