In the “now I’ve seen everything” category, let’s welcome self-described atheist film critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post, now excoriated for defending the Roman Catholic Church, specifically its Irish branch, against “Philomena,” an apparently smarmy new film that applies 21st century scruples to 1952 Ireland.
More than a sentence or two of background is necessary before the media criticism. And, yes, I know that GetReligion rarely if ever digs into the contents of reviews. Trust me, this one is worth it.
The “biopic,” as Hollywood’s press likes to call these things, stars Dame Judi Dench, portraying Philomena Lee, a now-senior citizen from Ireland who, some 60 odd years ago, was pregnant “out of wedlock” as the old saying goes. In Ireland, in the 1950s, being “in a family way” without being married was an express pass to ostracism for both mother and child. Think Hester Prynne on steroids.
Lee finds shelter at the Sean Ross Abbey, run by the Sacred Heart Sisters. As the story goes, Lee signs away the rights to her child, who is plucked from her at age three and packed off to America, long after firm mother-and-child bonds are formed.
Decades later, Lee enlists the help of a real journalist, Martin Sixsmith, apparently down on his professional luck. Together, they trace what happened to the baby she gave up, only to find the son, now named Michael Hess, passed away a few years earlier, a closeted gay man who rose high in Republican U.S. administrations, becoming chief legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush, before tragically dying of AIDS. Ironically, Hess donated money to the Sean Ross Abbey so he could be buried there, in case his estranged birth mother ever sought him.
Smith’s original review doesn’t divulge his own faith background (raised Catholic, he ditched the Church for atheism), but the critic comes out swinging:
The film doesn’t mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed. No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up.
Such criticism apparently didn’t sit well with Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, whose firm is the U.S. distributor for the film. Here’s Smith’s take:
I’ve never been flogged in the public square, but now I have a rough idea what it’s like.
On Thursday, Harvey Weinstein, the US distributor of the Judi Dench-Steve Coogan film “Philomena,” placed a full-page, color attack ad in The New York Times that screamed my name in blood-red letters.
“The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today ALL PRAISE ‘PHILOMENA’ WITH A 92 % CERTIFIED FRESH SCORE ON Rotten Tomatoes,” read the ad. “BUT THE NEW YORK POST’S KYLE SMITH HAS A DIFFERENT OPINION. ‘ANOTHER HATEFUL ATTACK ON CATHOLICS.’ ”
What I know about Hollywood film promotion, to borrow from the late Fred Allen’s quote on honesty in tinsletown, “you could fit in the navel of a flea and still have room left over.” But it does seem anti-instinctual to take out an ad promoting a harshly critical review of your film. In any event, Weinstein’s blast allowed Smith to reveal a bit more of his thinking — and himself — in a column responding to the Weinstein advertisement and an “open letter” from Lee in which she “forgives” Smith for “misunderstanding” the film about her:
My inbox is full of e-mail from fans of the film saying “a) how dare you ding it for being anti-Catholic when b) the Catholic Church is so transparently evil?”
We all know how cruel it was for the mid-century Catholic Church to provide shelter for scorned women written off as dead by their families, help them give birth to their children and place the adoptees in loving homes. Today we’d be much more compassionate: We’d simply abort all those kids. Problem solved!
Today’s Philomenas don’t have to wonder what happened to their babies. They’re out back, in the Dumpster. But better that than growing up to be a Republican.
Like [‘Philomena” male lead actor Steve] Coogan, I was raised Catholic and became an atheist, but I have too much respect for people of faith to be obnoxious about it.
Coogan does hint in “Philomena” that atheists should be careful about ridiculing believers, but that “Philomena” shows that people of faith can be perfectly nice and decent people doesn’t override the fact, Philomena, that the movie makes you out to be a fool who should be angry at the way she has been brutalized by a particularly vicious arm of the Catholic Church.
The Smith story hasn’t stopped with the Post critic, however. Lee’s “open letter” was mentioned by other media, including columnist Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe, who uses the controversy to take a swipe at the Catholic Church and tell Pope Francis how to run it:
Understanding that the movie fictionalizes some parts of Philomena’s story, there’s still enough truth in it to enrage Catholics, lapsed and practicing. It’s another illustration of moral rigidity from a church that too often in the recent past has been at odds with Christian principles of compassion and mercy. Of course, what happened at Roscrea doesn’t describe all nuns, and it covered a period of time when great shame was attached to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Still, whatever the cultural mores of the time, you would think there would be room for more forgiveness in a religion rooted in the concept of a savior conceived by command of God and born to a woman betrothed to someone else. …
So far there are no policy changes, but he wants American bishops to poll Catholics on their attitudes regarding divorce, birth control, and gay marriage. After saying little about the clergy sexual abuse scandal, he just appointed a panel to advise him on it.
When it comes to church history as depicted in “Philomena,” Pope Francis cannot change it. But he could call it for what it was.
Bottom line: that a film critic would dare to take on a movie’s factual claims with some trenchant analysis of his own seems to be rather shocking to the Hollywood elite. That it’s someone who rejects faith altogether seems a remarkable example of a reporter who “gets” religion, even when many others in the media clearly don’t.