Seeing Philomena with My Mom

I believe in the power of stories.

Experiencing movies for the first time amongst different generations is a powerful thing. Listening to various reactions on a shared experience stemming from a mix socioeconomic and generational brackets can be quite the enlightening event. I remember, after seeing Red Tails with family members ranging from their mid sixties to seven years old, what an interesting adventure that was.

Over the 2013 holidays my mom and I set out to our local Angelika to watch Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the sleeper hit Philomena. Both of us didn’t know much going into it. Mom’s a fan of Dench, especially as M in the most recent Daniel Craig driven James Bond series, and I always love a feel-good mystery. Little did we know that Philomena would take us on a semi-anti-Catholic path of secrecy, subversion and hypocrisy.


As the credits rolled and we sipped the last of our midday wine (we’re classy like that) I couldn’t help but see how tense my mother was. Yes we come from a very Catholic family, nuns included, but this was a movie, just a story.

But just as The Loquacionist said after seeing Dallas Buyers Club with her mom, I believe in the power of stories and Philomena had quite the grip on my mum.

Not only did Philomena’s story bring up recent memories of the former Pope Benedict’s harsh and hard-lined views of how Church doctrine ought to be practiced, but it also stirred a memory involving my mother’s aunt – we’ll call her B.

At the insistence of local nuns in rural Oklahoma where my great-great grandparents lived in the 1920s, newborn B was given up on a temporary basis to a childless farm down the road while my great-great grandma recovered from an illness. B was the 9th out of 18 children to come. However, after B’s mom regained her health, B was not given back to her mother. Instead, the Catholic Church forced the issue and used Christianity (and the fear of God I might add) to pressure the burgeoning family unit. The local nuns manipulated B’s mother, just like Philomena, to give up her child as part of God’s will and as an act of charity for the childless family that had now accepted B as their own.

Interpret as you will, but stories can punch into our individual pasts in a way we couldn’t think imaginable. For my mom, that was the case of her aunt B. For me, it dug up now hilarious memories of having to deal with an “evil” nun during my high school days…she even had a pet parakeet that happily sat on her shoulder during hour long chemistry lessons.

If you haven’t seen Philomena – do. Judi Dench is in rare, vulnerable, comedic form and Steve Coogan acted with such emotional complexity that I just wanted to give him a hug at the end.

Stephen Frears’ film is based off the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search by Martin Sixsmith.

phil book


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