From the February 1999 Visual Parables.

 Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Praise the Lord!…

Praise him with trumpet sound;

praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance

Psalm 150:1-4

Dance, then, wherever you may be,

I am the Lord of the Dance said He…

From Sidney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance”


Set in Ireland in 1936, the story is told years later by Michael. It was the summer when everything began to change for him and his mother and her four sisters. His mother Christina Mundy was the prettiest of the five sisters. None of the Mundy women were married, due to the scarcity of eligible men. Michael was conceived amidst a passionate affair, but his father had the wanderlust and had left the area. Although Christina had scandalized her sisters by the out-of-wedlock birth, especially Kate (Meryl Streep), the eldest, all doted on the boy.

Kate is the nominal ruler of her five sisters, all living in the same cottage. They live a hand-to-mouth existence, growing their own vegetables and knitting clothes from locally produced wool. But there are disturbing rumors that a knitting mill is to open soon. Kate teaches at the church school, but enrollment keeps declining, threatening her job. She is good-hearted but often her rigid morality spoils the fun of the others, a case in point being their desire to attend an upcoming dance. Maggie (Kathy Burke) is the liveliest of the five, Agnes the most to be counted on to keep things going in a crisis, and Rose is a bit slow of mind. She is carrying on a secret affair with a local married man.

They all eagerly await the return of their brother Jack from Africa, where for years he had been a missionary priest. But, when he steps off the train, they see that he is a disturbed, broken man. It seems that the Africans had done more converting of him than he of them. Not always certain of what is going on, he is a far more gentler man, we see, than when he served as a priest. Ironically, the paganized Jack is far more grace-filled than he ever was as a priest. Indeed, a sub theme of the story is the contrast between law and grace, Kate and the dour parish

priest being the law in all its rigid, humorless form.

During the course of the summer Gerry, Christina’s lover, roars up on his motorbike to spend some time with her and Michael. He wins the affection of the boy, and regains that of Christina. But he cannot stay beyond the summer, he tells her, for he has signed up to fight the Fascists in Spain. He apparently has come to a decision to make his life count for something. In the meantime, Rose sneaks off to join her lover in the harvest dance in the hills. Paganism still thrives there, with the locals paying homage to Lugh the god of light and music. The dance proves too much for Rose, its wild rites loosening the darker passions in her lover and the other revelers. She rushes away from the bonfire and is finally found the next morning by her sisters who are anxiously searching for her.

The set piece of the play, lovingly caught by the camera in subjective and objective shots, is a dance–very different in spirit from the pagan one Rose had gone off to. A beautiful Irish dance tune comes over their radio, arousing Maggie’s irrepressible spirit. Rose joins her, then Agnes, followed by Christina, and finally even Kate. They move out into the yard, the music rising in volume, the women in passionate abandonment dancing in a circle, weaving in and around each other. Jack watches with wide-eyed wonder, and is soon joined by Gerry and Michael.

For a moment the sisters forget their many cares–Kate has been unceremoniously let go at school, the woolen mill has opened, taking away their livelihood, Rose and Christina are heartbroken over their romantic affairs–as they are joined together in a dynamic circle love and grace. It will prove to be the high point of their lives, Michael tells us, a darker fate soon to overtake several of them. The dance ends only when the song on the radio stops. The sisters stand in silence, physically exhausted, yet spiritually charged. It was, Michael relates, as if the dance had transported them all, participants and watchers, into a realm where language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.

Based on Brian Friel’s internationally acclaimed play, this is a film that both disturbs and inspires the viewer. It joins my list of 1998’s Ten Best.




Spotlight (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

John 3:20

It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

Luke 17:2

Speak out for those who cannot speak,     for the rights of all the destitute

Proverbs 31:8

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Lord Acton


The major staff members of the Boston Globe work hard to expose the crime of Cardinal Law in protecting pedophile priests. (c) Bleecker Street

Lord Acton’s famous observation (which was part of his letter to an English bishop) applies to the Church, as well as to politics. In director Tom McCarthy’s film the Catholic Church is the power in Boston, as we see in this taut drama, now being favorably compared to All The President’s Men. We know the outcome of the true story, but the director (also co-writer with Josh Singer) and the perfect ensemble cast keep us leaning forward to follow the labyrinthine investigation into the dark recesses of an institution purportedly standing for truth, justice—and love.

Set in 2001 just before and during 9-11, the film begins with Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his Spotlight investigative team–Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)— discussing the arrival of the Boston Globe’s new boss Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). During his stints at The New York Times and the Miami Herald he had cut staff by 15% (the Internet was decimating daily newspapers), so they are worried. Baron is Jewish in a Catholic-dominated city he has never lived in. They all have been or still are tied to the Church. Thus the film belongs, in part, to the outsider versus insider genre.

At their first staff meeting Baron asks about a story by columnist Eileen McNamara (Maureen Keiller) revealing that a priest was accused of molesting more than 100 boys. 25 of the victims’ families had brought a civil law suit against the cleric. Baron, noticing that there were no further follow-up stories, wonders why. The answer is that the documents had been placed under court-ordered seal, so he asks why the paper has not challenged this in court. The Spotlight staff reacts as if he does not see the obvious: it was unthinkable to sue the Church. Nonetheless, Robby and his team follow their boss’s orders, plunging them into a dark world of devious, unconscionable cover up of evil that horrifies them—so much that Sacha Pfeiffer, the only one of them still attending mass, stops going.

Their search takes them to law offices and basements containing archives of diocesan directories, some of which are in the Globe’s own storeroom. It seems that years earlier those trying to bring justice for the young victims had sent a box of documents revealing names of priests and abused, but no one had paid any attention to them. The journalists are surprised to learn that there are 13 priests who, when caught abusing boys, were transferred to other parishes, and when further accusations were made, were sent on to still other parishes. They’re shocked even more when a national expert, asking them how many priests there are in the Boston Diocese, predict that there ought to be 90 priest pedophiles there. Further gumshoe investigation expands the list to 87 priests.

The abuse of the children, which no doubt would have led the Church’s Founder to march angrily into the palatial Diocesan headquarters with his whip of cords poised to strike, was made possible by virtually the entire community’s complicity. As Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer for many of the victims, rephrases the familiar quotation in regard to the molested boys, “It takes a village to raise them. It takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.”

“The truth of it” we see in the reluctance of virtually everyone to cooperate with the investigative reporters. Even lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has worked on behalf of the victims, does not believe the Globe is serious about taking on the Church, so he plays hard to get, even insisting when at last he sits for an interview that the reporter make no recorded or written record of their conversation. Big time lawyers, when approached by Robby and his team members,, are appalled at the idea of “attacking” the Church. Thus Baron insists that they hold off publication of the growing story until they have incontrovertible proof that the cover up is systematic, rather than just the case of a few priests. Experts have told them that the crime is not just a local matter of Cardinal Law’s covering up the crimes of his priests, but national, and even international, reaching all the way up to the Vatican.

Most of the drama is low key—no false histrionics—until reporter Mike Rezendes’ heated argument with Robby over the need to publish the story right away. Mike has become emotionally involved after talking with some of the pathetic victims whose lives have been ruined by a priest they had trusted and respected. The team now has documents proving that Cardinal Law had known for years about the abusive priests whom he had been transferring from parish to parish following reports of their molesting a boy.

Mike: “We got Law. This is it.”

Robby, who agrees with Baron: “No, this is Law covering for one priest, there’s another ninety out there.”

Mike: “Yeah, and we’ll print that story when we get it, but we got to go with this now.”

Robby: “No, I’m not going to rush this story, Mike.”

Mike: “We don’t have a choice, Robby. If we don’t rush to print, somebody else is going to find these letters and butcher this story. Joe Quimby from the Herald was at the freaking courthouse!”

Robby: “Mike.”

Mike: “What? Why are we hesitating? Baron told us to get Law. This is Law.

Robby: “Baron told us to get the system. We need the full scope. That’s the only thing that will put an end to this.”

Mike: “Then let’s take it up to Ben and let him decide.”

Robby: “We’ll take it to Ben when I say it’s time.”

Mike: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time! They knew and they let it happen! To KIDS! Okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags! We gotta show people that nobody can get away with this; Not a priest, or a cardinal or a freaking pope!

The story is tragic not only in regard to the treatment of the hundreds of abused boys, but even in regard to Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). In the scene in which the polished churchman welcomes the newly arrived Baron in his posh office, we learn that in the past  he has been a man of courage. The cardinal tells his visitor of his days as a young priest in Mississippi when he edited the diocesan newspaper and took up the cause of Civil Rights in its pages, much to the consternation of its racist readers. How sad, I thought, that this early champion of the downtrodden has come to value the careers of adult priests and the reputation of the church over the welfare of vulnerable children!

Tom McCarthy, director of one of my favorite Indy films The Station Agent, has gifted us with a powerful visual parable, one dealing with power and its corrupting influence. Through the centuries Protestant historians have charged that the fall of the Church began when Emperor Constantine legitimatised it. Within a few short decades the once persecuted, underground church became the powerful persecutor of pagans and those it deemed heretics, thus beginning the long chain of horrific events that included the Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars following the Reformation, the Index, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and anti-Jewish pogroms culminating in the Holocaust. (Some of those writers conveniently overlooked similar Protestant abuses of power such as those committed in Puritan New England.) This film is one more testimony to the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting nature of power.

From director to ensemble cast, this film is a mark of the excellence to which Hollywood can rise. A good companion film for this is Showtime’s 2005 film Our Fathers in which lawyer Mitchell Garabedian is played by Ted Danson, this film giving him far more credit than the Boston Globe for unmasking the predator priests and Cardinal Law. The new film does not white wash affairs by making this a story of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. When the staff celebrates their long-delayed victory, one of them owns up to the painful truth that he had ignored the material that was sent them years before. No one mentions it, but it is evident that he feels the pain that many boys could have been saved from molestation had not his respect for the church caused him to lay the material aside. Thus the one institution entrusted with the power to ferret out the truth had failed in its duty. Society’s self-appointed watchman had been asleep at the switch much like the ten foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable. We live in a world in which even the Good Guys become can become complicit with evil.

Before closing I want to say a little more about power and the church because as one of its members I think we too often betray our Founder in this regard. I recall that the oft quoted German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that this was the major difference between Christianity and other religions—that the gods of the latter were gods of power, whereas the God of Jesus Christ was one of “weakness and suffering,” hence Christ’s refusal to flee from or fight against those who came to arrest him in Gethsemane.  On July 16, 1944 he wrote to his friend:

“God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us…This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a Deus ex machina. The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process of we have described by which the world comes of age was an abandonment of a false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness…”*

I don’t think Cardinal Law and his fellow Bostonians who supported him have any understanding of this. Although his diocese undoubtedly did much good for the poor through such services as Catholic Charities, he and his church acted more like masters than servants. To protect the church and its reputation (and it, has turned out, its pocketbook), he was willing to sacrifice the welfare of hundreds of young boys in order to protect his priests. That he still believes in and lives in the world of power we see by the end line of the film that mars the “happy ending.”  It tells us that far from being punished for his crime, Cardinal Law, when he resigned, fled to Rome. The Vatican not only allowed him to keep his seat in the College of Cardinals, but Pope Paul II made him the head of one of the most prestigious churches in Rome, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. This is punishment for ruining the lives of hundreds of children? It seems that the Vatican also continues to share the world’s, and not Christ’s, preoccupation with power and prestige. (But, to keep this from being a Protestant anti-Catholic diatribe, so do most television evangelists promising success, and even wealth, to their gullible followers.)

*Letters and Papers From Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 122 of the Fontana Books edition.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP.


Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue can break bones.

Proverbs 25:15

Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.

Ecclesiastes 3:16


Jimmys Hall - Written by Paul Laverty, Directed by Ken Loach, Produced by Rebecca O'Brien

Jimmys Hall – Written by Paul Laverty, Directed by Ken Loach, Produced by Rebecca O’Brien

Ken Loach’s newest, and allegedly last (sadly), film centers on Jimmy Gralton, the only native Irishman to have been deported as an alien—all due to his radical political views and activities. Paul Laverty’s screenplay sets us down in 1932 when Jimmy (Barry Ward), who had fought in the Irish War of Independence, is returning home from exile in New York City to care for his aging mother following the death of one of his siblings. The cart he is riding in is stopped because a group dance held at the roadside is blocking the road itself. They recognize Jimmy, and many of them are present at the large party welcoming him home. As he passes by the old dance hall he can see that it has not been used for a long time.

An activist at heart despite his long period of inactivity, he is soon gathering people to refurbish the old hall that they built together earlier. It again becomes the center for him to spread his egalitarian beliefs, as well as the place for education, sewing, singing and dancing, and even for teaching boxing. Also a popular attraction is the wind-up gramophone with its huge horn that Jimmy has brought with him from America, plus a good supply of records.

The plight of the majority of the people has not improved much since independence, with landlords, many of them having benefitted in past generations from their alliance with the British, evicting hundreds of families from their homes due to the hard economic times of the Thirties. Jimmy finds himself coming up against the power of the Catholic Church, led by the local priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) who sides with the rich and powerful. We see the priest’s theocracatic view visualized when he points Jimmy’s attention to the symbolic painting on a wall of his study depicting the role of Mother Church—a bishop clad in splendid robes blesses a knight who kneels in obeisance before him. In one long sequence we see the joyful activities going on at the Hall interspersed with snatches of the priest, clad in his own splendid vestments, haranguing against the “Communist” Jimmy and the “debauched” activities transpiring at the infamous Hall.

Jimmy is not depicted as a doctrinaire Communist, though his economic and social views are such, and his Revolutionary Workers’ Group that he led is now considered a predecessor of the Communist Party of Ireland. He even meets with Father Sheridan, urging him to come and see for himself what is taking place at the Hall. He surprises the cleric when he offers him a place on the governing board, but the wary clergyman replies that he would accept only if the deed to the property were transferred to the Church.

Jimmy apparently eschews the violence espoused by Communists in the Soviet Union, as we see in the confrontation scene that moves close to the brink of armed conflict. Jimmy and a large column of marchers are escorting a family intending to take back the empty house from which a landlord had evicted them. Their horse-drawn cart is piled high with their old furniture. As they face the landlord and his hired guns (with the priest standing beside them), the latter threaten the locals as they draw and point their pistols at them. Immediately the supporters of the tenant family draw their own guns and aim back at their opponents. There is a tense standoff, one during which a false move could have resulted in much bloodshed at such a close range. It is Jimmy who insists that his supporters put away their weapons, and the others follow suit.

Jimmy’s story is told in a highly entertaining way, with a touch of romance added in the person of his former girlfriend Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who apparently married during his long absence and mothered two children. The film is filled with wonderful music, some of it consisting of jigs danced by groups, couples, and one, especially charming, by an 8 to 10 year-old girl accompanied by another girl of about the same age playing a tuneful fiddle. In a scene between the older Father Sheridan and a younger assistant, Father Seamus (Andrew Scott), we hear a snatch of singer Bessie Smith; and when Jimmy reluctantly agrees to show the adoring crowd some steps he learned in New York, I believe it is a Louise Armstrong tune we hear. Perhaps even more magical is a scene at night in the darkened hall when Jimmy embraces Oonagh and they dance in silence. She has donned for the first time the lovely dress that he had given her upon his return from America. (He had also brought a gift for her children.) After a few moments there is just a hint of a stringed instrument from time to time, the two gliding together to their inner music. By the end the background music is just discernable. These filmmakers know when “less is more.”

Some have seen the film as an attack on the role of the Catholic Church which held extreme power over the people prior to the sex scandal that has rocked it to its foundations. However, the filmmakers’ depiction is more nuanced than this in that they provide the younger priest, who calls into question his superior’s view. (“Superior” might be the wrong word, as I do not recall the film clarifying his status. His frank opposition to Father Sheridan might indicate that he pastored another Church and was therefore free to voice his protests.) This priest is bothered by the use of “Communist” to tar what he obviously sees as the good things going on in the Hall. At a gathering of landlords in a lavish drawing room he remarks that if Christ were here “there are some here who would crucify him. “

Also, Jimmy is shown sitting in the chapel of Father Sheridan’s large church waiting his turn at Confession. To the priest’s chagrin, after admitting that it’s been 25 years since his last such visit, Jimmy delivers what amounts to a moral scolding, telling the priest, “You have more hate in your heart than love.” This apparently hits home, because Father shares this with his colleague, his voice more reflective than defensive. Also, after a somewhat humorous escape from the police (aided by his mother), Jimmy is caught at last and loaded onto a cart, a number of his enemies (probably included some of those who earlier had shot into the hall during a dance night) taunt and jeer at him. Father Sheridan is there, but he does not join in the attempt to humiliate his foe. Raising a hand, he demands that the jeering stop, insisting that they pay Jimmy some respect. I don’t know whether this is the filmmakers’ invention, or historical, but it is a wonderful touch, reminding us that the heart of even a sworn can be touched by the right approach. This is a bittersweet conclusion, but a morally satisfying one as well.

The review with a set of discussion questions is in the September issue of VP.

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Unrated. Running time: 2 hours.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (0-5): 5

 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.  So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Matthew 22:15-21


King Henry VIII and his friend Sir Thomas More are at odds over his break with Rome. (c) 1966 Columbia Pictures

 A Man For All Seasons, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1966, tells the story of a man who said “No” to a king who demanded what he in good conscience believed belonged only to God and the church. Fred Zinnemann directed the script adapted by Robert Bolt based on his play about the battle of conscience and wills between the King of England and one of his loyal subjects. Actors Robert Shaw as the King and Paul Schofield as the only man in England who has the courage to say “No” to the king are magnificent in their roles!

In the 1560s King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw), worried about the failure of his wife Catherine of Aragon to birth a male heir, decides that he will lay aside his wife so that he can marry the young, and hopefully fertile, Anne Bolyn (Vanessa Redgrave). The Pope has denied the king’s request for an annulment, so King Henry breaks with Rome, declaring himself to be the head of the church in England. All of his officials, even Archbishop Cranmer, support him in this venture—all but one, his Lord High Chancellor of England Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield). A devout believer in the supremacy of the Pope, Sir Thomas would not sign the letter that the King had sent to the Rome. A good sample of the dialogue between the King and his friend follows:

King Henry: “Oh, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas! Does a man need a Pope to tell him where he’s sinned? It was a sin. God’s punished me. I have no son. Son after son she’s borne me – all dead at birth or dead within the month. Never saw the hand of God so clear in anything. It’s my bounden duty to put away the Queen, and all the popes back to Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.”

Sir Thomas: “Then why does your Grace need my poor support?”

King Henry: “Because you’re honest… and what is more to the purpose, you’re KNOWN to be honest. There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown; and those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I’m their tiger; there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there’s you…”

Sir Thomas: “I am sick to think how much I must displease your Grace.”

King Henry: “No, Thomas, I respect your sincerity. But respect… man, that’s water in the desert.”

The break with Rome takes place, with a compliant Parliament going along with the King’s desire to remarry and assure the realm an heir. All officials are ordered to take an Oath of Allegiance. To avoid this More resigns his post and seeks safety in retirement. Quite a step in a society in which men cherished power, but in a statement echoing some words of Christ, Sir Thomas observes, “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”

Even in retirement More found himself under intense pressure to take the oath. He thought that by not speaking at all in public that his silence would save him, but his silence at a time when every notable figure but himself had accepted the king as head of the church–his silence–was deafening. His wife (Wendy Hiller) and daughter plead with him to yield, as did powerful nobles such as the Duke of Norfolk, but to no avail. A campaign to blacken More’s name includes the following exchange, very revelatory of Thomas More’s character. Cromwell (Leo McKern) says to the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport), “I have evidence that Sir Thomas, while he was a judge, accepted bribes.” The Duke is not convinced, “What? Goddammit, he was the only judge since Cato who didn’t accept bribes! When was there last a Chancellor whose possessions after three years in office totaled one hundred pounds and a gold chain?”

Finally it is a sycophant named Richard Rich (John Hurt) with a grudge against More whose false testimony is used at the trial to win a guilty verdict against the hold out. After the sentence of death is passed and Rich is leaving the courtroom, Sir Thomas stops him, and, holding the pendant of office hanging from the betrayer’s neck, sees that Rich has been given lordship over Wales as the reward for his perjury. Sarcastically, almost chastising the young man for selling out so cheaply, he says scornfully, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?

Among the last lines of the play are words between Sir Thomas, the executioner, and Archbishop Cranmer.  To the axe man he says, “I forgive you right readily,” and gives him a coin. ”Be afraid of your office; you send me to God.” Cramner interjects, “You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?” As he kneels before the chopping block Sir Thomas replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

Clearly the Man For All Season knew what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. For him there could be no compromise even when his life depended upon it. Just before the axe falls Sir Thomas says to the witnesses, “I am commanded by the King to be brief, and since I am the King’s obedient subject, brief I will be. I die his Majesty’s good servant but God’s first.” Thus this “man for all seasons,’ even if we might disagree with his belief in the supremacy of the Pope, knew well what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God.

 The dialogues come from IMDb, A Man For All Seasons.


Philomena (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 13 min.  .

Our Advisories: Violence 4; Language -1; Sex/Nudity –1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

            Psalm 72.4

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.

Matthew 18:21-22


Philomena and Martin seek clues for the fate of her lost son at the convent where 50 years earlier she had given birth to him, only to have him given up for adoption without her consent.
(c) 2013 The Weinstein Company

Director Stephen Frears, best known for his The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and Dangerous Liaisons, gives us his best film yet—and Judi Dench presents us with perhaps the best of a long string of great performances. Although overshadowed by the huge blockbusters, this film—no doubt to become a part of the Oscar buss soon—will be around and cherished long after the mega-producers have ceased counting their hundreds of millions in box office receipts. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay is based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a story as filled with grace and forgiveness as it is of oppression and institutional cruelty.

The film at the very beginning brings together the strands of three stories:

1. That of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) dealing with his dismissal from a post in Tony Blair’s administration, amidst charges of scandal, and his attempt to restart his career in journalism.

2. Retired nurse Philomena Lee, holding a picture of a toddler boy and, musing guiltily over the events, and, on the day of his birth, deciding to tell her daughter Jane (Michelle Fairley) her secret story of how Anthony, as she had named him, was taken from her.

3. Frequent flashbacks to the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meeting and having a one night stand with a boy; of her father abandoning her to the cruelties of life in an Irish convent run by overly moralistic nuns who showed her no sympathy.

Jane, working as a server at a catered party, overhears one of the guests, Martin talking about his journalistic ambitions, tells him about her mother in the hope that he might help her find out what happened to her son. However, Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent and bureau chief, has his heart set on “serious” journalism, not what he condescendingly calls “feature story” writing, so he blows her off. He would like to write a book on Russian history, but the lack of enthusiasm from those to whom he mentions the project makes him aware that this is not the way to go. Talking over with his wife Jane’s invitation, he makes an appointment at a restaurant to meet the mother and daughter.

He is upset by Philomena’s story in which the nuns, believing that she is a depraved girl, dismiss her terrible childbirth pains with, “Pain is her penance.” She and the other Magdalene girls are forced to work in the laundry to pay off their care, allowed to see their infants for just one hour a day. Then, when Anthony is three, the nuns sell him to a wealthy couple without any warning or the opportunity to say goodbye. The one bright spot in her incarceration was a young sympathetic nun who managed to take a picture of the boy and give to her on the sly. Through the years this small framed photograph had become like a holy icon, bringing Philomena a measure of comfort, even a tiny pleasure, as she takes it out and gazes at it.

Martin, backed by his editor at a newspaper, agrees to accompany her for still another visit to the convent in County Tipperary, Ireland. The two are received courteously at the convent, but are told that they do not have any further information because the old records had been destroyed in a fire. When Martin continues to push the matter, suggesting that they be allowed to talk to the older nuns to see if they remember anything, the nun curtly dismisses him so that she can talk privately with Philomena. Noticing through a window a dour old nun, he tries to enter and talk with her, but is prevented by the staff from doing so. He goes outside and comes across a graveyard. It is filled with the graves of unnamed babies, as well as of several mothers who had perished in childbirth. The nuns had not bothered to tend the graves, all of which are covered over with vines and weeds.

Discouraged, the two return to the village inn, but there in the pub Martin learns that they have been lied to by the nuns. The fire was a bonfire, the bar tender informs him, with the nuns themselves burning all of the old records. They also learn that American parents probably had adopted Anthony. Clearly the convent is not well liked by the villagers.

Deciding to go to America, Philomena experiences culture shock—you probably saw in the trailer her express her fear that Anthony might be overweight—because of the large portions of food they serve in America. Thanks to his journalistic contacts and his trusty laptop computer, he learns the truth about Anthony, who had been given a new name by his adoptive parents. There are several surprises in store for the two, as well as for viewers, so we will go no further with the story—only to say that it is a powerful one that deals with faith and forgiveness as much as with the solving of a the puzzle of a lost son’s fate.

The film reminds me a bit of Les Miserables in that it can be seen and discussed as one contrasting two ways of life—that of grace and forgiveness as opposed to one of clinging to past wrongs and refusing to forgive. Martin and Philomena both grew up in the Catholic Church, but whereas Martin now has given up his belief in God, Philomena’s faith is even deeper than when she was young. Martin refuses to forgive the church, and the nun in particular, Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), whose cruelty so hurt his friend. Philomena, on the other hand, still goes to confession and loves the church, able even to offer the now aged but unrepentant nun forgiveness. Philomena is free from the bitterness and dour outlook on life that plague Martin.

It would be nice to be able to write that forgiveness softens all hearts, but the rigidly moral nun still believes that it was Philomena, not herself, who is guilty of mortal sin. Martin loses his cool and lashes out like an Old Testament prophet. If Philomena’s naïve faith has softened his atheism a bit, the nuns’ cruelty—their past wrongs against Philomena are added to by a new, incredibly cruel, one—quickly confirms his contempt for any and all religion, thus illustrating an old observation that the church has created more atheists than all other causes combined.

Despite the heaviness of the drama, Stephen Frear’s film is much lighter than the similarly themed Magdalene Sisters (2002). The script (co-written by actor Steve Coogen) plays on the class differences between the Oxford-educated Martin and the lower class Philomena. He quotes T.S. Elliot, whereas she goes on almost endlessly telling him the plot of a bodice-ripping novel she tries to get him to read. In fact, their status as odd-couple friends is confirmed by the ending when the last words we hear are her reciting again the plot of her favorite novel while he listens in silence.

The film also has many moments of grace that makes it a shoo-in for Visual Parables’ Top Ten Film list. One of them is when the couple are still in Washington DC at the airport, about to give up because the trail has gone cold. Reporting this to his editor back in London, the response is negative. She orders him to convince Philomena to keep up the quest. He is clearly reluctant to do so, seeing what pain she is in. He says nothing about his phone conversation. It is Philomena who decides they must go back into the city, thus relieving him greatly. Later, when she is highly troubled, his humanity is affirmed even more when he tells her that he will not write the story, quite an offer for a journalist to make!

This opportunity to see two actors at the top of their form is not to be missed!

The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006. 


Our Fathers (2005)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): V 1; L 1; S/N 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered in thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3\Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

            Luke 12:1-3

Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

            Matthew 18:4-6


Archbishop Law meets with a group of grown victims.
(2007) Showtime Networks

A lawyer meets with one of his clients to discus the $10 million settlement of a suit against the most powerful institution in the city. The client does not want to settle, saying that the money does not matter to him—he wants the facts of the case brought out into the open, and he wants a public apology. Needing all of his 27 clients to agree before the settlement can take place, the lawyer tries to convince the man, telling him that this is the best they can hope for, and that the only way their opponent will change is to hurt him, that money is the only thing they understand. Were we to see this scene out of context, rather than as a part of the movie Our Fathers, we might think that the opponent was a big power company as in Erin Brocovich, or a giant corporation as in A Civil Action. How sad and shameful is it that the oppressive institution in this film is the Catholic Church! This Showtime movie, based on Newsweek’s David France book Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, provides us with a stirring picture of courage and cowardice, of faith and the willingness to risk everything in a struggle to bring the shameful truth to light.

Jumping back and forth between the present and the times thirty or more years earlier when priests took advantage of young boys in their charge, the film focuses on lawyer Mitchell Garabedian’s (Ted Danson) struggle to find justice first for Angelo DeFranco (Daniel Baldwin) and then for all the others who come to him–and who ingeniously find other victims who had contained their shame and remained silent for so many years. First meeting with Bishop Murphy (Kenneth Welsh) and the diocesan ivy league counsel Wilson Rogers Jr. (Will Lyman), it seems that Mitch is out of his league (Wilson scornfully calls him “a nobody”), but the bush league lawyer has two things that all the ivy league training cannot provide–a passion for justice mixed with a loathing for what the hypocritical church did to the boys, and facts, lots of them, despite the Church’s working with the courts to keep records sealed from public scrutiny.

Without becoming too graphic, the filmmakers show several instances of predator priests taking advantage of boys, confident in the unquestioning trust their parents have in them, and thus assured that none would believe the word of a child, even if he could overcome his shame and fear and report what had been done to him. The incidents have long lasting effects on the boys, some of them being unable to maintain the intimacy of a marriage, and virtually all of them dropping out of the church, many hating it because they identify it with their persecutors. These desperate men not only welcome Mitch, but some go on to form a self-help group.

The filmmakers try to give a balanced picture of the sordid scandal, with gifted actor Christopher Plummer portraying Cardinal Bernard Law as a confused man who claims that he passed pedophile priests on to other parishes because he believed that they could change. He does have the courage to attend a meeting of the self-help group where he offers a lame apology–but he refuses to resign his post. There is a scene in which, summoned to Rome, he has an audience with Pope Paul II, who does not want him to resign. Countering the various pedophile priests is Father Dominic Spagnolia (Brian Dennehy), who does not hesitate to denounce Cardinal Law from his pulpit. There is a suggestion of a plot to frame him by a false accusation of child molestation, and when that charge seems to be overcome, another dark secret from his past is revealed. It seems that archdiocese is willing to do anything to someone questioning its hypocritical relationship to the victims of its priests.

The film suffers from so many victimized characters that at times our attention seems divided. Father Spagnolia’s story is told in just enough detail to gain our interest, but not enough to be satisfying–a whole film could have been devoted to him, or better, this slightly over two-hours long film could have been expanded to a miniseries so that we could have come to know all the various characters in more fully. However, the cast is so good–both the actors portraying the major characters, and those on screen for just a few minutes (Ellen Burstyn as a mother whose seven boys were all molested is on screen for just five minutes or so)–that we are drawn into their stories, and with Mitch, come to despise the church hierarchy that seems more interested in protecting the good name (and assets) of the institution than in helping those victimized by its priests.

The film, however, is not anti-church, just pro-gospel. It deserves to be seen and discussed by a large audience. Those wanting to explore the themes of guilt and forgiveness will especially appreciate the film, as the two scenes described below demonstrate. The DVD also features a short “making of” documentary with the real victims telling their stories. This in itself could be used as a launching pad for a church school class probing the story behind the headlines.

 Good teaching/preaching moments:

1) Tom Blancette (Hugh Thompson), one of the victims decides to visit in the hospital his abuser, Fr. Birmingham. The dying priest apparently cannot speak, but he is fully conscious as his visitor introduces himself, telling him that he was one of the boys in his parish whom he victimized. We can see on the visitor’s face the conflicting emotions that have been tearing at him, and we can also see the priest’s awareness in his face, his eyes a bid widened, no doubt in fearful apprehension. We expect the visitor to launch into a tirade, or, when he brings up the subject of forgiveness, to demand an apology. Instead, he asks the priest to forgive him—for all the years that he has hated him. Tears well up in the face of the priest, matching those streaking down Tom’s face. He even offers a prayer in which he asks for the priest to be healed!

2) A second moving scene is when Olan Horne (Chris Bauer) confronts Archbishop Law, who then agrees to the challenge/invitation to attend a meeting of victims abused by the priests. The prelate takes his seat at the table facing the room full of men, many of them there with their spouses and parents. He hangs his head in shame as two of the men share their sad story of how they were taken advantage of by predator priests. Then the presider, mentioning that there are a number of victims who are not present because they committed suicide, asks those who knew or were related to them, to stand. A surprisingly large number rise up. The cardinal keeps his eyes lowered, until one woman, angered at this, yells to him, “Open up your eyes and look!” Her rebuke become symbolic, reaching back to the time when the cardinal first learned of the problem, and did nothing.