Monday, December 16, 2013


seen @ City Cinemas Paris Theater, New York NY

As biopics go - and this year has had absolutely no shortage of them - Philomena wasn't bad. I wasn't gonna see it at first, but the unabashed charm of Judi Dench in the trailer, which I saw repeatedly this fall, eventually won me over. I'm glad to say that the trailer didn't reveal as much of the story as I thought it did, however, it did spoil most of the funny lines.

I wanna talk about one aspect of the story which caught me by surprise, and which, I assume, reflects the attitude of the real Philomena Lee. The premise is that she had a baby out of wedlock as a young woman, and in heavily Catholic Ireland, that's a big no-no, so she had to give her baby up to a convent of nuns, where she had to do hard time for several years as compensation. Now, as an old woman, she wants to know what happened to her kid.

Thing is, though, Philomena, also being Catholic, recognizes that what she did was considered sinful in her faith, yet at the same time, she never apologizes for it. She talks frankly about not only how much in love she was at the time, but how much she enjoyed the sex.

This aspect of her character impressed me. Even here in America, a slightly more secular country than Ireland, there's a... not a stigma, exactly, but certainly something of a prudishness in certain circles, whenever a woman is open about her sexuality. For centuries, women have never been allowed to have the same desires as men, and whenever they tried to, they got slapped down hard.

Religion has mostly been to blame for that, especially Catholicism. Religion is most insidious when it's used as a means of control, when a privileged few wield their power over a majority like a club and decide how one should worship the deity of their choice. As a result, basic human impulses, like sexual desire, are oppressed - though if the oppressors want to bend the rules in their favor every once in awhile, well, who's gonna stop them? Philomena - and this isn't really a spoiler - is able to forgive the nuns who gave away her child, an act of true Christian charity which is way more than they deserve. 

Steve Coogan's character, however, raises a point which the movie never provides an adequate answer to (not that I expected one): to paraphrase, if sex is a sin, why does it feel good? If you believe in God, then you believe that man was created in His image. If that's the case, then shouldn't that mean that human sexuality comes from Him as well? I would think that this is something to be celebrated, not denied - at least as long as consenting parties are involved. It's no wonder that we've been as screwed up as we have been for so long.

From a filmmaking point of view, I loved how director Stephen Frears' camera lingers on Dench's marvelous face. In my post on Dark Victory last week, I talked about actresses who have aged gracefully, and Dench is one of them. It takes a certain amount of vanity, I imagine, to be a Hollywood actor, so to let oneself be seen on a big screen in old age, unglamorously, can be seen as an act of bravery, in a way. By being able to study every wrinkle and sag on her face, we're made that much more aware of Philomena as a real woman whose long years have weighed on her.

I saw Philomena at the Paris, a tiny one-screen theater in midtown Manhattan a stone's throw from Central Park. It's a very simple, cozy kind of place; not as glitzy as its name implies, though it does have a balcony (which I didn't sit in). I saw Life is Beautiful there as well as the 90s Roman Polanski movie Death and the Maiden. That might have been the first time I'd been to the Paris, in fact. As I recall, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, back in the days when I didn't follow movies as closely as I do now. 

EDIT 12.18: I almost forgot - before the movie, the Paris played, for no particular reason that I can think of, a Paul McCartney video. A YouTube search reveals that the song is called "Queenie Eye," and I assume it's from his most recent album. It's nothing special as a song; I mean, it sounds like typical late-career solo McCartney. What's notable is the all-star roster of guest stars in his video: Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, to name a few. It seemed very strange to watch a music video before a movie, especially one by McCartney (this was after a commercial featuring David Bowie!), but the more I think about it, the more I think it's not necessarily a bad idea to show a video before a movie, as long as it's demographic-appropriate. I wouldn't expect to go to a movie like Philomena and see a video by, say, Nicki Minaj, for example.

As you might imagine, the Paris draws a more upscale clientele than your average multiplex, and yesterday's crowd skewed way older, including the company I was with. This was a movie Vija proposed as part of her semi-regular movie-going club. (I almost didn't go because it was snowing like crazy on Saturday, but yesterday turned out to be nicer.) Her boyfriend Franz was there, along with this woman named Susan, a friend of Vija's who I met at one of her fabulous parties a year or two ago. Franz and I got into a heated debate afterwards at this Turkish restaurant about whether or not documentaries count as film. He actually tried to make the case that they weren't, which boggled my mind.

I talked Vija into coming out to Queens for a movie next week, so I'm happy about that. It'll be nice to not have to pay Manhattan prices again!

Dame Judi with the real Philomena Lee.

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