Apparently “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench, is surpassing expectations at the box office. Good. If you haven’t seen it, set aside some time to take in the story of a mother searching for the son she had to give up, 50 years ago.
No spoilers ahead– I’m not going to recount the story here. One lingering reflection, however, has to do with a nun who is portrayed as especially– even cruelly– bitter and moralistic: Sister Hildegarde.
As a professional religious person, I pay attention to how professional religious people are portrayed in movies. Dithering blowhard fools is one characterization: think of the priest in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and his invocation of the “Holy Goat,” um, er, “Holy Spigot;” or in “The Princess Bride,” when Humperdink and Buttercup stand before the priest who, nasally and with a speech impediment, begins to sermonize about “Twooo Wuv……” Then there’s the saccharine Father Mulcahy of the TV series “MASH”: innocent, pious, toothless– likable but largely irrelevant. The best I could come up with, are the nuns in “The Sound of Music,” who, aside from having some singing ability, actually engage in an act of moral courage that helps the von Trapps escape from Austria (and open a 3-star resort in Stowe).
And now we have Sister Hildegarde, a character who seems to worship her religion, rather than her God. Usurping the role of judge, Sister Hildegarde metes out a punishment that can only be called cruel. She doesn’t get the last word, however, and in this movie the last word goes to the character who is closer to the heart of divine mercy than those who appear to be the professional religious. In that way, “Philomena” is not so far removed from the Bible’s newer testament.