Philomena and the art of cinematic propaganda

Responses to the film Philomena have been as predictable as they have been divided. In one corner filmgoers who think it is a brilliant film, also in this corner are those who applaud it for its attack on the practices of the Irish Catholic Church. In the other corner, other defenders of the Catholic Church and the Republican Party, fighting with both hands tied behind their backs, but fighting nonetheless.

The film is also extremely interesting for another reason and that is the way that the medium of the film, as distinct from the content, is used to support the political message. It’s subtle, but it’s extremely effective.

The message of the film, that the Irish Catholic Church had abused and exploited young foldable women, is reinforced by the fact that the main character is akin to a saint, not only for her steadfast faith but also for her forgiveness of the nuns who have perpetrated such enormous sins against her. How could we not sympathise with such a character? It is by enlisting the audience’s sympathy for the character, that the credibility of his story is enhanced. There’s nothing wrong with this but it is a cinematic trick. It has been used in the past to very great effect by the Dirty Harry and Rambo franchises. This linking of the character with the political message of the film is used to reinforce existing prejudices of the audience. In the case of Philomena, the outrage felt at the multitudinous abuses of children by the Catholic Church.

But most people, I feel that sense of outrage. But it is worth considering how this film manipulates that sense of outrage and how such a technique can be used to reinforce other prejudices.

Philomena’s son, Anthony/Michael, is used in much the same way. He is successful, good-looking and personable. He is also gay and has died of AIDS, big sympathy tick here. He has also died before Philomena can meet him, more sympathy for Philomena from the audience. He has kept alive his memory of his early childhood in Ireland and of his mother. What’s not to like about this bloke? But in the end, the devils of the Catholic Church haunt him to his grave. The sense of outrage in the cinema is almost palpable.

On the other side of the ledger, are nuns of the Roscrea Magdalene asylum for fallen women and the repulsive Sister Hildegard McNulty who regards Philomena’s pains in childbirth as just punishment for her carnal sins. Not only this, these women sell babies. There is no sympathy in the film for the nuns. And why should there be, they showed no sympathy for the children they were exploiting in the laundries. But this is an easy and facile judgement, and one which the film encourages us to make.

What is dangerous about this film is that it plays to and reinforces our prejudices, mine included. We of the liberal left want to feel outrage at the abuses of the Catholic Church and this film helps us do it, and in spades.

I think this is a great film and that Judi Dench deserves an Oscar for her role as Philomena. But we should not be blind to the cynical exploitation of the situation both of the film and the surrounding publicity.

When New York Post critic Kyle Smith blasted Philomena for its  “simultaneously attack Catholics and Republicans”, the real-life Philomena Lee wrote a letter to Smith, putting her side of the picture. All fair and above board. But then the Weinstein Company, which produced the film, ran the letter as a full page in the national edition of the New York Times.

To be fair, this is what you do to get Oscars. But we should not be deceived by the fact that this is a continuation of the same strategy on which the film is based:  a story for which there is massive sympathy, characters the audience has immense sympathy for and  bad guys who are irredeemably evil.

As an antidote to Philomena, we should all go to see the excellent Wag the Dog the 1997 black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Now those guys really knew how to manipulate the media.

As an antidote to Philomena, we should all go to see the excellent Wag the Dog the 1997 black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Now those guys really knew how to manipulate the media.

Other film related blogs

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/turning-books-and-films-the-case-of-great-expectations

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/the-broken-shore-no-mystery-road

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/why-we-all-love-notting-hill

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/inside-outside-upside-down-llewyn-davies

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/mystery-road-and-great-australian-film

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/shakespeare-in-love-a-minor-masterpiece

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/la-femme-nikita-and-the-pygmalion-myth

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/luc-bresson-leon-the-professional-and-moral-ambiguity

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/philomena-an-oscar-for-dench/

https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/the-desolation-of-smaug-too-little-butter-to-much-bread

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