Oh, God! (1977)

This review includes many spoilers so as to explore in some detail the theme of faith, so you might want to see the film first, if you have not already. I am posting it now because it fits in well with one of the Scripture Lessons in the column “Lectionary Links,” featured in the July 2017 issue of Visual Parables.

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 38 min. Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1. Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;  our God is merciful.

The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.

I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”;

I said in my consternation, ‘Everyone is a liar.’

Psalm 116:5-11

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

And he marveled because of their unbelief.

Mark 4:6


Jerry at night-time again reads the note,

supposedly from God.   (c) Warner Bros.

Many people were put off by the title of Carl Reiner’s film when it was released in 1977. Most were soon put to ease when they saw the story unfold about God trying to reassure an anxious humanity (it was the height of the Cold War) that things would turn out all right if they would have faith and do the right thing.

In the film God’s means of calling a mild-mannered assistant produce manager, very much like “the simple” of Psalm 116, was not quite as eye-catching as a burning bush, but still miraculous. Jerry finds a note amongst the produce at the store where he is an assistant manager. It is type-written invitation claiming that God wanted to meet with him at a certain place. Thinking it a joke, he tries to get rid of it, but it keeps reappearing, including that night when he is in bed with his wife.

The next day he does go to the building, his meeting setting him forth on a seemingly impossible mission because it seems so preposterous. Claiming that God took the form of an old man wearing sneakers whenever they met–how could anyone accept that? Jerry, as played by John Denver, had trouble himself at first believing that the old man, ably portrayed by George Burns, was really God. Nor was it any easier accepting his call to go and tell others. Wouldn’t they think he was crazy?

God & Jerry at his supermarket. (c) Warner Bros.

Yes, they would. Jerry’s own wife and children think he has gone off the deep end. When he manages to get on the Dinah Shore Show, he is held up to ridicule. The TV anchors and pundits have a field day with him. And a panel of famous theologians and a TV evangelist are unconvinced when they interrogate him. God, however, is fed up with the smug, less than honest evangelist, so he has Jerry go to one of his televised services and attack him verbally. This leads to a court case against Jerry, initiated by the evangelist and his attorney. Again, Jerry is held up to ridicule, but this time, if the judge does not accept Jerry’s claims, there will be a costly penalty. The trial reaches its climax, with Jerry calling one witness (against the judge’s advice Jerry serves as his own attorney).

Jerry calls as his witness, and he pauses for a dramatic instant, “God.” Everyone looks back at the double-door of the courtroom. Nothing happens. There is a snicker among the crowd, but the judge is clearly not amused. Jerry argues that there was a moment when everyone must have expected someone, a brief instant when belief and doubt co-existed in their minds, because they all looked back at the doors. Thus, he should be given the benefit of the doubt, and the case against him dismissed, he argues. The judge is not only not convinced; he is tempted to cite Jerry for contempt of court!

And then the doors do open, and in walks the old man in sneakers, just as Jerry had described him, claiming to be God. God accepts the oath, swearing “so help me, Me,” and then proceeds to affirm both Jerry’s message and his goodness. When the evangelist’s lawyer tries to question God, he is told, “Sit down, Sonny!” The camera pointedly shows us the court recorder starting a tape recorder, as well as typing every word being spoken. After his brief testimony in which God again reassures humanity that they will be fine if they believe and do right (and he also does a card trick for the judge!), he walks down the aisle and exits through the doors.

A buzz spreads through the startled people in the courtroom. Only Jerry, and at last his wife who had questioned his sanity, are calm and pleased at what has transpired. The judge orders the plaintiff and the defendant into his chamber to discuss the case. He confesses that he is not sure what happened, especially when the court recorder cannot find any of the words of God on the tape and the typed transcript. We can hear during the playback the questions and remarks of all the humans, but where God supposedly spoke there is only silence. A check of the paper transcript also reveals only blank spaces at those places where God’s words should have been. The evangelist and his lawyer claim that this must all be a hoax or a hallucination. Jerry tells them that God had told him such would happen, that God cannot be captured or enclosed physically, that he came in human form only to accommodate our limited senses. His accusers refuse to accept this, of course. The judge, saying that they will probably never know what really happened in that courtroom, dismisses the case, and Jerry walks out a free man, both he and his wife believing that they had indeed encountered the living God.

I really enjoyed Avery Corman’s novel, on which the film is based, but it ends before God walks through the courtroom doors. Thus, when the film continued, I thought, “Oh no, here goes Hollywood, messing up a good novel–they couldn’t just end the film here. They had to prove to everyone that it was really God whom Jerry had met.” This feeling of disappointment continued–until the scene in the judge’s chambers, when no physical evidence could be provided for God’s presence. The people had only the evidence of their own senses, and they responded according to the nature of their character. The evangelist with his fake faith, so smug with his belief in a god made in the image of himself, refused to credit his own eyes and ears. The skeptical judge was at least open, but still not convinced. Only Jerry and his wife truly believed and left the courtroom changed by the experience.

The filmmakers accepted Avery Corman’s thesis that there is always ambiguity in faith, that the believer must choose whether or not to believe. The scriptwriter took the novelist’s biblical understanding a step further, showing us that God cannot be pinned down by our modern devices. God is far too big and tenuous (spiritual) for tape recorders, or any other technological device, by which we attempt to capture “Reality.” Thus Oh, God! stands in opposition to the many biblical spectaculars, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s’ The Ten Commandments, in which miracles are objectified for all to see and be convinced of God’s presence. The film seems to start out that way, with God acceding to Jerry’s request for a miracle to prove that he is really god: God causes it to rain inside Jerry’s car, while the sun is shining outside–but this is a private experience just for Jerry. Others, such as the traffic cop who stops him, could interpret the water as having been left over from a car wash through which he must have driven with his windows open.

Oh, God! reminds us that although “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” we must still choose to accept an experience, and that different people, such as those in the judge’s chambers, will react to a faith encounter in different ways, some accepting, and others rejecting the validity of the experience.

This review is adapted from the longer feature (it includes questions) “Praying the Movies” that appeared in the Oct. 2000 issue of Visual Parables.

Hope Bridge (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: Not available, under 2 hours.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 …where then is my hope? Who will see my hope?

Job 17:15

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5


Sophie, a fellow patient, agrees to drive Eric in his quest for those who knew his deceased father.       (c) 2015 Pure Flix Entertainment

Director Joshua Overbay’s independent film has been called a “Christian film,” but unlike others in that genre there is no mention of Jesus Christ or the church. My usual complaint about such movies—that they lack subtlty, their producers wanting to grab viewers by their lapels and convert them—does not apply to this film dealing sensitively with a teenager deeply troubled when he discovers that his recently deceased musician father died by his own hand.

In present day Kentucky 15 year-old Jackson’s (Booboo Stewart) mother Robin (Sam Sorbo mother) is so worried about his behavior that she decides he needs counseling. However, because they do not seem to belong to a church, she takes him to a therapist, Eric (Kevin Sorbo)—there are no last names or professional titles in this film. Jackson is not eager to open up to a counselor, but Eric is personable, exhibiting genuine concern that moves beyond professionalism. At one point he tells the despondent boy, “Your life is not pointless. You have people who love you. Who need you.” Jackson is fearful that, being the son of a suicide, he too might follow in his father’s footsteps, so Eric says, “Your life has a purpose. Your story is important. Your dreams count. Your voice matters. You were born to make an impact.”

Part of  the treatment program involves the clients sitting in a circle with other troubled souls and sharing their stories. One of them is Sophie (Rebeca Robles), a girl a little older than Jackson. She not only takes a liking to him but also has a car that she is willing to drive around as Jackson runs down clues to people who had known his father. Eric cautions Jackson, saying that he should be sure of what he is doing, that he might not like what he discovers. One of those discoveries is that he has a grandmother named Lana (Tantoo Cardinal) down in Tennessee. Sophia obligingly agrees to drive him there, asking in return that he accompany her when she goes to reconcile with an aunt from whom she had stolen something. Lana is pleased to meet her grandson, but reveals something about his grandfather that adds to the boy’s depression. For a dark period Jackson seems to sink beyond all help, until…

This film about suicide reminds me of one released 50 years ago, a Sidney Poitier film named The Slender Thread. ­Detailing the efforts of a crisis center telephone volunteer to seek help for a woman who has called to report that she has taken an overdose of pills on purpose, it relied more on suspense that the current film. Would Poitier’s character be able to coax from her the information so that a team of medics could find her in time? There is intense suspense toward the end of Hope Bridge when Jackson drives out to the bridge that gives this film its title, but the suspense does not run throughout its length. This is more of a study of a teenager seeking to understand the motives of his dead father, his quest fraught with the fear that it might reveal that he is doomed to the same fate.

With little or no budget for promotion, this film played for but a brief time in Cincinnati. This is unfortunate in that it is a fine coming to oneself film that church youth groups would do well to see and discuss. So many teenagers go through periods of depression and consider doing themselves in that watching and discussing the film could be of help. There are no altar calls or conversions offered, no “Jesus is the Answer” bromides, just the affirmation that there are caring adults who can be a “bridge of hope” for those seeing only uncrossable chasms in their lives. The good news is that it is being released on DVD on May 26.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.

Heaven Is For Real (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 39 min.

Our content ratings:V 0; L -0 S/N 1.

Our star ratings (1-5): 3

 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat

2 Corinthians 12:2-4


Sonja & Todd visit their son Colton after his near death experience. (c) 2014 Sony Pictures


Long-time readers know of my wariness in regard to movies made by so-called faith-based filmmakers. Thus, I have put off catching director/writer Randall Wallace’s adaptation of the New York Times best-selling book of the same (hokey) name, especially when a good friend emailed me that he did not care for the film. Still, the Rev. T.D. Jakes is one of the producers, and I thought his Woman, Thou Art Loosed was a very good film, so at last I found myself at a daytime showing where there were a few more viewers than usual for that hour.

Set in the small town of Imperial, Nebraska, this is the story of what happens when a pastor’s 4 year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) experiences a near death experience and claims to have seen Heaven, Jesus, and his grandfather. His father Rev. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly) are taken aback by the boy’s claim. However, the details of Colton’s narrative, such as his recognizing his grandfather not from the picture of him as an old man, but as a youth, and his bombshell statement that he met the sister he had never known existed, convinces Todd that the boy had not been hallucinating, as a psychologist had suggested. Sonja had suffered a miscarriage, and she and Todd had never told Colton about this. They had not even named her because they had not enquired about her sex, so traumatized had they been by the loss. (There is a chapel scene when Colton is near death during which Todd cries out in anguished honor for God not to take his son from him.)

One would think that such a sensational affirmation of the Christian belief in heaven would inspire the congregation, but it does not, leading instead to trouble and even the possibility of Todd having to leave the pulpit because many parishioners are ill at ease when he speaks of the experience. The part-time pastor (he installs garage doors to make ends meet) is criticized even by his best friend Jim (Thomas Haden Church) and church organist Nancy (Margo Martindale). The latter has become embittered since her son was killed a few years before in Afghanistan. In one of the most moving scenes of the film the two converse at the son’s grave where Nancy confesses to jealousy that her son died while Todd’s lived, and that her anger is directed toward God, not him. Todd assures her that God does not care any more for him than for her.

Although Randall Wallace leaves some ambiguity for skeptical viewers, the ending in church with Todd’s sermon and congregational hug seems a bit over the top, a bit too warm and fuzzy, so that I was reminded of a similar climax to an otherwise good film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Some have faulted the film for its depiction of a white-skinned Jesus that Colton reports having seen, but they forget that the trip to Heaven is seen through the eyes of a 4 year-old who is unlikely to know about any of the fascinating portraits of Christ created by Asian, African, and Latin American artists. (My D. Min. thesis included surveys of such paintings by non-European artists, and I found very few adults who knew about them.)

Thanks to a strong cast, especially the sincere performance by Greg Kinnear who eschews any piousness so often associated with movie ministers, the film does not descend to the level of propaganda. Most of all, of course, praise must be given to the delightful little actor Connor Corum (and to the film’s casting director) whose sense of innocence and obvious affection for Kinnear has endeared the film to many. I will not be adding this to VP’s Top Ten list at the end of the year, but I will say that it is so much better than I had expected, especially after having sat through God Is Not Dead a week before. For those wanting to explore matters of faith—not Heaven itself, but the hope for better things that the concept represents—this could be a useful film. Indeed, as I was writing that last sentence, a quotation from the new Spider-Man­ movie came to mind, so let me end by repeating that quote about the need for the web slinger: “I like to think he gives people hope.” “For what?” the other asks, and the response is, “That everything will get better.”

The Miracle Maker (2000)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

John 21:25


John prepares to baptize Jesus.
(2000) ABC Films

The Claymation Jesus film The Miracle Maker aired on ABC Television in 2000 and is now available on DVD. The clay figures, which are made to “move” by means of stop-motion photography, are beautifully crafted, as are the miniature sets. The outstanding voice cast includes Ralph Fiennes as Jesus, Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene, Richard E. Grant as John the Baptist, William Hurt as Jairus, David Thewliss as Judas Iscariot, Alfred Molina as Simon the Pharisee, and Ian Holm as Pontius Pilate.

At 90 minutes, the average length of a feature cartoon, The Miracle Maker has to leave out many important events of Christ’s life—the Transfiguration, the feeding of the 5000, the scourging (just as well for children watching), and most of the words from the cross (unfortunately, “Father forgive them…” was one)—but the essence of Jesus’ story is captured so winsomely that adults can enjoy this retelling of the gospel story as much as children

Appropriately, the story of Jesus is told through the eyes of a little girl whom he heals, Jairus’s daughter, given the name of Tamara. She first sees Jesus’ act of kindness, when, while he is doing carpentry work on the synagogue across from her house, he prevents the overseer from whipping the insane woman who has interrupted their work—Mary Magdalene (for once portrayed, not as the traditional prostitute, but as the gospel writers described, as the woman from whom Jesus had expelled seven demons.

The claymation is replaced by regular flat animation whenever there are flashbacks or interior reflections or thought processes. So we see the claymation Jesus and disciples enter the Garden of Gethsemane, and then when Satan appears, the process changes to animation, Satan waving his hand and opening an escape route through the olive trees so that Jesus can easily escape those coming to arrest him. Thanks to the strong yet compassionate voice of Ralph Fiennes, joined to the strikingly crafted clay image, this Jesus is indeed “the Miracle Maker,” healing people out of love and standing firm before his enemies.

Like the CBS film Jesus, this film takes a cue from Luke 4:13, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” This is Luke’s conclusion to the Temptation in the Wilderness, and in both Jesus and this film Satan does indeed come to the Garden of Gethsemane to tempt Jesus, anxious to escape from crucifixion. For me the woeful voice of Ralph Fiennes pleading to have the cup taken away makes this scene the most moving of all the Jesus films. This excellent film should be in every church and pastor’s library!

Note a lengthy discussion guide for the film is in my forthcoming book Jesus Christ: Movie Star, scheduled for publication in mid-2014. Check out ReadtheSpirit for an announcement when it is available.

Grace Unplugged (2013)

Rated PG.  Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our Advisories: Violence 5 ;Language 3 ; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 2.5

 With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

Romans 12:1-2 (J.B. Phillips)


Grace Trey plays and sings with her father Johnny at their church.
(c) 2013 Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Writer/ director Brad J. Silverman’s faith-based film, boasting better production values than most such productions, is about love, but it is the love that holds families together even when their deeply held opposing opinions threaten to tear them apart.

18 year-old Grace Trey (A J Michalka) sings with her music minister father Johnny (James Denton) in their Birmingham, Alabama church band, where they clash over the way she sings her lines. She longs to slip from her father’s controlling presence and sing in her own style, which includes secular as well as church music.

When she gets the chance, she goes behind his back, recording a demo of the song that he had written when he had been a one-hit rock singer before his conversion to Christ. When it is well received by her father’s old manager Frank “Mossy” Mostin (Kevin Pollak) at a Los Angeles record company, she runs away from home, placing herself in the hands of the record company’s stylists who cosmetize her appearance. The question, of course, arises: what will they and Frank do to her values and goals?

Johnny comes after her, but can only use persuasion to woo her back because she is of age. How she barely escapes being led astray by the shallow values of those she meets in the City of Angels makes for an uplifting story. The film does share the weakness of most faith-based films in that there is little subtlety to the way in which its evangelical message is proclaimed. Still, the film is entertaining, with the acting, singing, and songs first rate, and one scene between father and daughter especially touching in the way they express their love by strummi   ng back and forth on their guitars a few bars from the hymn “It Is Well.”

Also, to the film’s credit, it does not demonize the record people, but does show that some of them are too bound to the success ethic. The record company’s star Renae Taylor (Kelly Thiebaud), whom Grace had looked up to back in Birmingham, tells her “Your body is the biggest asset you have. It’s your currency. Sometimes you have to spend it.” Renae is probably not astute enough to see that this kind of spending leads to spiritual bankruptcy, but will Grace realize that her father is a better advisor than her idol?

Those who watch this film might well come to a better understanding of any differences between the generations, as well as appreciating both the human and divine love that hold a family together. On the other hand, the ending that suggests you can have your cake and eat it to might be a bit too pat for viewers used to more sophisticated film fare.

 A set of discussion questions come with the review in the March issue of Visual Parables. Go to The Store to see the Contents  Page and how to subscribe.

The Gospel According to MATTHEW (1993)

Not Rated. Approximate running time: 4 hours 18 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4


This is not a re-issue of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Instead, it is a sumptuous visualization of the entire text of The Gospel According to Matthew produced by a group called The Visual Bible. If you are old enough to remember The Genesis Project’s “New Media Bible” back in 1979, a group that planned to film the entire Bible, but succeeded only in finishing Genesis and Luke before they ran out of money, then you will welcome this new venture. The Visual Bible began as a South African venture that had the ambitious goal of filming the entire Bible in fifteen years. Unfortunately, they also ran out of money, but not before producing three filmed Bible texts that ought to be in the library of every minister or church. (More on the other two later.)

Matthew is a big budget production, in terms of costumes and settings, as well as in “a cast of thousands.” Cecil B. DeMille could not have handled the crowd scenes better than Director Reghardt van den Bergh and Producer Robert Marcarelli. But the producers do not try to awe us with huge special effects, as Mr. DeMille so often did — a wise move, I believe, when dealing with faith events such as the appearance of angels and miracles.

Richard Kiley plays Matthew, an old man in the early 60’s A.D. recalling for friends the events he witnessed as a young man. As a scribe writes down his account, the gospel events unfold before us. The text of the N.I.V. Bible is used, so there is no wandering away from the recorded events, after the manner of such extravaganzas as The Greatest Story Ever Told or King of Kings. The camera switches back and forth between Matthew dictating and the acted out scenes, the actors speaking the dialogue. You might think that this would be awkward, but it really isn’t. The Visual Bible includes even the genealogy of Chapter One in an entertaining way — and that takes some doing! I wonder how the producers would have handled Numbers and Leviticus?!

Key to the whole enterprise, of course, is the actor portraying Jesus, and this Bruce Marchiano handles very well. His voice is not as stately as Max von Sydow’s in The Greatest Story…” or of Robert Powell’s in Jesus of Nazareth. It is so ordinary sounding, and as the story unfolds, this becomes a strength, adding to the believability that Christ, the Son of God, really did become one of us. There is a youthful, playful side to this Jesus that has not been shown before, making me wonder if the actor, or rather the director or producer, were familiar with Elton Trueblood’s ground-breaking book of a number of decades ago, THE HUMOR OF CHRIST. For this is a Jesus that not only smiles (a nice touch to the often dour-faced revolutionary Jesus of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew), but who smiles, jokes, and laughs.

He even pulls off a practical joke. The latter is during his delivery, of all things, the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of sitting down, this Jesus moves about among his listeners. He takes a goatskin of water from a man, sips a drink, walks on, and then dumps the water over the head of a startled listener. Everyone laughs with him. Then Jesus tousles the man’s hair, as if to reassure him that no malice was intended. This may shock some straight-laced purists, but I thought it was a wonderful touch, following up a funny rendering of the parables of the man with a board in his own eye trying to take a splinter out of his neighbor’s — Jesus picks up a board and holds it so that it appears to be sticking out of his eye, evoking guffaws from his listeners. No wonder “they heard him gladly.”

I love comparing the various Jesus films, to see how different directors handle the same incident. I’ve noticed that directors influenced by the Roman Catholic Church show John baptizing Jesus by sprinkling or pouring, whereas Protestant oriented directors choose immersion. When people come to John the Baptist in this film, there is no mistaking that this is filmed by a Protestant.

Like all Jesus films, this one is not perfect: the angels are a bit hokey. Several sections could have been staged and/or edited more creatively, especially in the last half (where it seems that the filmmakers ran short of ideas, time or money). Even so, Matthew is a fine visual interpretation of the text, one that can be used in a variety of ways.

Individuals could use it for personal study, the chapter and verse numbers appearing at the bottom of the screen making it easy to fast forward to the verse you want. You might think the chapter and verse listings would be distracting, like those pesky date and time numbers embedded in some home videos, but they are not; I soon got used to them and took them for granted, until I wanted to find a particular passage. (A good feature of the DVD menu is that there is an Index for an incident and another one for chapter and verse.)

Also a good feature, one favoring group use — the video works better with groups than a book. Ever try having more than two people read from just one copy of a book? Still another possibility for churches that use projectors in their sanctuaries: you could substitute a DVD scene for the Gospel Reading in the worship service. If you do so, then the subtitles should be turned on, which reinforces the oral presentation.

Vision Video offers a one-disc and a two-disc set, the second one at $19.99 being just $4 more than the one-disc version. Plusthe latter’s Bonus Materials include: Historical Background; Production Design; About the Cast; About the Filmmakers; Academic Advisory Committee; Interactive Bible Map; Glossary of Historical Terms; Bibliography; and Filmography. I have not seen this particular set, but think that these must be worth the extra $4. Indeed, I marvel at this price, because when I first reviewed this film 10 years ago, the price for the set of 4 VHS tapes was a whopping $99.95! Affordable then only by large churches and resource centers, now even those of modest means can own a copy. Oh yes, I almost forgot—the other two fine productions this fine company produced are The Gospel of John and Acts, each of which I reviewed in Visual Parables a few years ago. These also are great tools for Bible study and worship, with John being even a better production than Matthew.
Order from: Vision Video, P.O. Box 540 | Worcester, PA 19490. (800) 523-0226 or (610) 584-3500. Customer Service Hours 8:00 am – 6:00 pm EST. support@visionvideo.com


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.