Saint Philomena was an early Christian and a virgin. She was 13 when she was martyred. She is the patron saint of children, of the imprisoned, and consoler of afflicted mothers. This seems appropriate to the film Philomena, based on Martin Sixsmith’s book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about a mother searching for her long lost son.
Catholic, unwed, and pregnant in 1950s Ireland, Philomena Lee was brought to Roscrea Convent, where she gave birth to Anthony. In order to leave, they had to pay a fee, or work in the laundry for three years, an indentured servitude. The mothers would see their children for one hour a day, and were forced to sign away their rights to the children. The children were adopted out (sold) to foreign families.
For fifty years, Philomena kept this a secret, but ultimately enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith, a journalist who worked both for the BBC and under Tony Blair. She wanted to find her child, but also wanted people to know about her story, and about the way her story was covered up.
In the film, the character of Sixsmith repeatedly talks about “human interest stories” disparagingly, as if they are entirely different from “real journalism.” I think one of the points of the film is showing how much the personal and the political are intertwined, how stories of “real journalism” are also human stories. Philomena’s story touches on the Catholic Church’s suppression of unwed mothers in 1950s Ireland to closeted homosexuality within the Republican party of the 1980s and 90s, how people internalize these attitudes, and the suffering it causes.
In discussion with his editor, it is clear that the more dramatic the story is, the more dirt it uncovers about major institutions, the better sales the story will garner, which is in opposition to the personal aspects of the story, about things that are usually private. But publicly telling a story like this is itself a political act. Ultimately its about truth-telling. The powerful want things kept secret, and it is the journalist’s job to bring these things out into the light.
In one scene in the film, Philomena asks Martin if he must use her real name in the story. He insists, yes that’s how these things are done. It’s wonderfully synchronistic that her name is Philomena, not only because of the Saint Philomena’s areas of patronage, but also because Philomena (or Filumena) means “full of light.”
Read an article summarizing Philomena Lee’s story, by Martin Sixsmith: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/19/catholic-church-sold-child
Philomena is showing at Images Cinema through Thursday, 1/9.