Philomena-OG-BadgeIn our household, we have what might be deemed a “love/hate relationship” with Catholicism. I had a Catholic father, but was raised Methodist because my dad left those decisions to my mother. My father had turned his back on the Church, which had made his youth miserable. Like so many, though, he returned to it toward the end of his life. He somehow found comfort in a faith that had once made him feel worthless and wicked. At the end, he was adamant that a priest should come hear his confession—although what sin he could have committed from his hospital bed will forever be a mystery to me.

Meanwhile, my husband describes himself as a “recovering Catholic.” He spent his elementary school years in the local parochial school under the strict supervision of nuns. (To my knowledge, and their credit, he was never beaten or publicly chastised.) Today, you’ll find him in church for just three occasions: “hatch, match, and dispatch”: baptisms, weddings, and funerals. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, still attends Mass every day, and when she was widowed last summer she found great strength and comfort in all the rituals and in her devout beliefs.

Despite my personal history and mixed feelings, I rejoiced when the College of Cardinals chose Father Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina in March. Pope Francis took the name from Saint Francis of Assisi to honor the saint’s focus on the welfare of the poor, and, to date, Francis has proven to be a kinder, gentler pontiff. TIME’s Man of the Year preaches a gospel of peace, tolerance, and charity. He has eschewed many papal luxuries. But his words and personal sacrifice are difficult to take if you’re still disenfranchised. Some of my gay friends, for example, will accept nothing less than full credence to their rights —including marriage. Other friends take issue with a man who talks about poverty while the institution he leads holds unfathomable wealth. And then there’s the issue of women.

After Francis’s New Year’s message, with its emphasis on “brothers” and “brotherhood,” many feminists felt that this New Age pope was still leaving women out of the picture. Did he actually mean “brothers and sisters” in the way that the word “man” is often used to connote humans of either gender? Perhaps. Francis has championed allowing women a more active voice in the Church. However, he recently excommunicated an Australian priest, Father Greg Reynolds, for teaching women to ordain themselves. Although Francis believes that women are “fundamentally important,” he stresses that “Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalised’.”

The Catholic Church has a long and storied tradition of keeping women in their place—even in relatively modern times. If you have any doubt, I encourage you to see the movie Philomena.

6791212Philomena is based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a 2009 book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. Lee was just a teenager when she met a boy at a fair. Motherless from a young age, she had been raised by nuns and knew nothing of sex or birth control. When she became pregnant, her father sent her to the convent at Roscrea, where she was forced to give her baby up for adoption (the babies were actually given to wealthy U.S. families, presumably because of large donations) and work for four years in a laundry to repay their keep. Eventually building a life and family for herself, she never forgot her child. Fifty years later, with the help of Sixsmith, she uncovered where he was taken and who he had grown up to be. But it was too late. Her son, Michael Hess, a closeted gay man who had risen to be chief counsel to President Bush père, had already died of AIDS.

The new film has created controversy, with some decrying it as a hateful attack on the Church and others complaining that it marginalizes actual atrocities committed. (If you’re interested in a much darker study of the Church’s less-than-Christian treatment of unwed mothers, watch 2002’s horrific The Magdalene Sisters.) Philomena is deftly directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons). The screenplay, based on Sixsmith’s book but taking significant liberties, is by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Coogan also plays Sixsmith. But the star of the movie is Dame Judi Dench as Philomena.

At 79, Dench is no stranger to the international awards circuit. With seemingly countless nominations under her belt, she’s the recipient of an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, and ten BAFTAs. This year, we can expect more for this quiet but powerful performance. If she wins the Oscar for Best Actress, she will be the second oldest woman to do so after Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy.

Dench is luminous as Philomena Lee. Frears takes full advantage of his star’s ability to effortlessly capture our hearts with numerous close-ups and witty scenes that tempt us to laugh, but quickly morph into something more tender and true. But while her performance is wonderful, it is not a wonder in the sense that it is what we have come to expect from this grandest of grande dames.

Video: Philomena Trailer

Steve Coogan, on the other hand, was a big surprise. I’ve always thought of Coogan as the cinematic godchild of the Monty Python crew. His Hamlet 2, which was just plain wrong on so many levels, was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen (example: Thanks to a time machine, the prince of Denmark is helped by a greater power, cueing the song “Rock me, rock me, rock me, sexy Jesus”). Here, Coogan’s performance is subtle, touching, and he’s strikingly handsome. Sixsmith serves as the voice of modern reason, a sharp contrast to Philomena’s continued faith.

On his quest for a “human interest” story, Sixsmith takes Lee to Washington. There, they connect with her son’s coworker (and former beard), and eventually with his partner. All roads lead back to Roscrea, though. At the end, Sixsmith acts upon all the rage we feel on Philomena’s behalf. She, the ultimate victim, urges him to forgive and move on.

The real story had no such dramatic finish, and not so redemptive a resolution. Lee never went to America, and, in interviews, she says she’ll carry anger and guilt about her child all her life. Nevertheless, she has experienced some celebrity on red carpets recently, standing alongside Dench and Sophie Kennedy Clark, the actress who plays the younger Philomena. Lee admits that she enjoyed the film, but that the screen character isn’t really her. “They really make me look like a silly billy, don’t you think?” she told The New York Times. But she understands why the film had to alter the real events. “Otherwise, it is a very sad story.” As Lee explains, “It is hard to believe what it was like back then. What we had done was seen as so shameful.”

We will have to wait and see how Pope Francis will act on his promise to bring women into the Church. Meanwhile, Philomena Lee’s story and the marvelous movie Philomena raise the same question. What would Jesus do with an unwed mother? I doubt he’d make her do laundry.

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