3 Stars — Thought-provoking

The longing of our hearts to know that we are loved is one of the deepest emotions we will ever have. A child grows to maturity and confidence when they are nurtured by a loving mother and father, and conversely, a parent finds great fulfillment in giving that love unconditionally. If only that was every child’s experience.

Philomena is the true story of Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for her son, Anthony. Having been placed in a convent in Ireland by her father as a pregnant teenager, Philomena (Judi Dench) came of age in a dreary world of nuns devoted to duty but lacking in grace and love. When Anthony was but a very young boy, she got to visit with him once a day for an hour. The rest of her time was filled with manual labor tending to the cleaning of the convent. When her son was only a couple of years old, he was sold to an American family without her knowledge and taken from her, never to be seen by her again.

The film focuses on Philomena’s life 50 years later as she struggles to know what happened to her darling little boy. Each day is consumed with questions: Was he OK? Did he become an alcoholic? Did he make something of himself? Did he ever think about her?

Into her life comes a reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who is struggling with questions about his own future and not sure where to go next in his own search for fulfillment. He had recently lost a prominent position with the Labor Government and was exploring the world of writing. Through a chance meeting with Philomena’s daughter at a party, he is introduced to her and begins the search for the long-lost Anthony in hopes of turning it into a human-interest story. Little did he know that this search would change both of their lives or that their assumptions about the Catholic Church were to be so dramatically challenged.

Philomena’s search for Anthony took her back to the convent where she was raised, and ultimately to America to find his adopted family. What she found along the way was very different from what she expected. We won’t spoil the story with details, but it is fair to say that what she discovered gave her some comfort and at the same time a challenge to the core of her faith.

How do you respond to unexpected challenges in your life, or to bad news? For Philomena, her faith gave her a sense of compassion for everyone involved. For Martin, a man who had lost his faith a long time ago, he angered easily at injustice and sought self-righteous judgment. Both Philomena and Martin had something to teach to the other, and it is the exploration of this journey that is as intriguing, as is the story of a search for a son.

Equally challenging, but unexplored, is the question of what drove a now elderly unrepentant nun to think the way she does and to take actions that seem uncharitable. What goes through the minds of modern-day Catholic leaders who minister to these elderly nuns? What compassion goes out to the families that lived through the pain caused by actions a half-century ago?

Philomena will be honored for its remarkable performance by Dench, but it will be remembered for the pain of a mother who lost her ability to love and protect her child. The redemption that can come from such a story is that it opens our eyes to the need to give birth to an explosion of compassion for the lost and hurting in our world and to do so without the judgment and pain that can permeate a person’s life forever.


» In your own faith journey, how have your experiences with the failures of others in your faith impacted you?

» The longing for a child that a mother, or father, surrendered in their youth is a lifelong yearning. How can we assist in this yearning? Is reunion the only or best solution?

» It is not a simple thing to walk back through one’s life and see life from the eyes of experience. Have you visited your own past, and what did you discover?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.