I know: there are a dozen less-shocking lines from Stephen Frears’ Philomena that I could have used in the title of this piece, if I couldn’t have thought of something original myself. As it is, “phenomenal Philomena” is destined to become a trite alliteration in reference to this superlative film, which of all the Oscar candidates that I’ve seen — I am seeing them in order of release — is now the one to beat. But if you don’t agree with Steve Coogan’s exasperated exclamation about Catholicism in reference to its abuse of, well, just about everyone in the history of its existence, then you’re likely a member of the Catholic clergy, or as terrorized by this most dangerous and egregious of Christian sects as Philomena herself.

Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a Roman Catholic-turned-atheist journalist and Russia specialist who has lost his job as Director of Communications in the UK Department of Transport following a scandal, for which he feels he was made the fall guy. At a cocktail party, he accidentally stumbles on a human-interest story about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a retired Irish nurse whose illegitimate son was forcibly removed and given up for adoption by the convent where she gave birth to him fifty years earlier. It’s not the sort of piece Sixsmith would ever consider writing before his fall from grace, but he senses that it might be the what he needs to distract him from incipient depression. A Chinese box of small surprises of increasing size unfolds as Sixsmith journeys with Philomena to Washington, D.C. in search of her child. It’s a story that had me gobbling a third slice of comfort pizza two hours after seeing it, while I texted my sister, “I am still so weepy and outraged by this movie… Now that’s filmmaking.”

The most remarkable and immediate quality of this impeccably crafted film is the pitch-perfect script, co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope. As a screenwriter myself, I can usually sense the quality of a script within the first minute, and if it is excellent my heavily right-sided brain will compartmentalize and behave like a court stenographer, laying out what I am seeing and hearing in screenplay format, perhaps to better analyze the film’s technique for future reference. I have no idea why I do this; it appears to be a professional reflex. In the instance of Philomena, within the first five minutes the transcript in my mind’s eye morphed impressionistically into the work of a Sumi-e master; all of the critical information, the exposition, the characterizations had been exquisitely rendered with a few deft brushstrokes. From then on the script never wavers in its taut excellence; it is a paragon that should be studied closely by anyone adapting material for the screen.

I am also aware, from both experience and as a longtime admirer of Frears’ work, that a vast portion of the credit for this sort of narrative perfection lies with him. From his breakout hit My Beautiful Launderette onwards, through great (The Queen) and mediocre (Dirty Pretty Things), he has demonstrated an innate, uncanny ability to translate the nuances of human emotion and experience cinematically without resorting to needless melodrama or highly wrought setpieces, the way a more Hollywood-friendly Spielberg might. In the instance of this film, I am even willing to overlook Alexandre Desplat’s obvious, emotion-tweaking score, which in certain moments my impressionistic mind saw accompanying Dame Judi as she ascends the podium to accept her Best Actress Oscar, which she might well do. (I don’t know much about music, but there seems to be an homage to Tchaikovsky’s pieces for children running through the score.)

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

Good dramas are written for maximum emotional impact. Great dramas like Philomena are written on several levels that contribute to that impact. Just as Sixsmith himself had a six sense (forgive the word play) for a story, so have Frears, Coogan and Roth understood how important adapting Sixsmith’s book to the screen is for the current global discourse about religion and the misdeeds of the Roman Catholic Church in particular. On the surface, it’s about a wronged woman’s search for and answer to a mystery and the reluctant hero who will help her find it. It’s also about the complicated relationship between mother and son, with Sixsmith stepping in for the lost child; Sixsmith is more or less the same age as Philomena’s real child at the time the story unfolds. Another level explores the modern social dynamics of Irish-British culture, specifically the subservience of the less-educated majority to the “dominant hundred thousand” of Oxford and Cambridge graduates like Sixsmith, whom Philomena constantly refers to as ‘Oxbridge,’ much to Sixsmith’s disdain. On a minor level there is the self-imposed, artificial moral quandary in which politically conservative LGBT people find themselves. The subtext list goes on — like Blue is the Warmest Color, I could write a few essays on this film.

Again, what Philomena explores most deeply is the debate between religion and atheism, which at this point is pretty much settled in Europe, but is just beginning here in intractably religious America. In this respect the film is the first major production to talk about atheism and to take a firm stance on its side while never being didactic and leaving some questions open that, I imagine, make the film palatable for religious people. But within the first ten minutes of the film, when you find out the facts about what happened to Philomena at the hands of the nuns, you have one word in your mind: ‘evil.’ And one of the many clever, balletic turns of the script is it cuts from the expository flashback in the convent to Sixsmith’s first interview with Philomena in a gastro pub, where he repeatedly uses ‘evil’ to sum up what he is hearing; the effect is as if an echo from your mind is bouncing off the dialogue onscreen.

Despite what has happened to her at the hands of the faith that has sustained her entire life, Philomena isn’t so sure it is the clergy who are evil. A battle of which sin is greater, theirs or hers for having enjoyed sex and let herself get knocked up, continues within her unabated. Once you set aside your indignation that Philomena doesn’t take a firm stand again the Church and sue the hell out of those sanctimonious demons wearing the Western equivalent of burqas, you understand that her reluctance and forbearance creates one of the most intricate, least geometric character arcs in film history.

Philomena is no saint, and it’s not because she committed a ‘sin’ by engaging in the most natural act in creation out of wedlock. In a deceptively charming scene when she orders an omelet from a Mexican cook in Washington and compares him to Indians in the UK, she underscores just how unapologetically racist the Irish can be (a major conflict on Son of Anarchy this season arises because of the IRA’s refusal to do business with African Americans no matter how advantageous the deal). Despite the initial impression that she is a bit witless, that turns out to be merely nervousness at meeting former News at Ten correspondent Martin Sixsmith. To think that her mind has been entirely dulled by “Catholicism and romance novels,” as Sixmith puts it, is to be duped by Philomena’s disingenuousness, as we see by her actions and words later. And there are few things more pernicious than the disingenuous.

 Martin Sixmith and Philomena Lee

The real Martin Sixmith and Philomena Lee

No doubt some Christians, perhaps all of those who still practice, will see the final sequence in which Philomena exercises an extraordinary act of forgiveness as a vindication that Christian practice makes one more virtuous than those who have no faith — Sixsmith the atheist is unable to forgive and says so bluntly. But this is to misunderstand the premise of the film. As Sixsmith says in an earlier scene when he and Philomena are debating the merits of religious faith, “You don’t need religion to lead a happy and balanced life.” The same goes for Philomena’s act of forgiveness: This might be a Christ-like act, but it isn’t a result of Christianity; rather, it comes from her as a person, from who she is inherently: a kind, nurturing, healing being whose love for her son burned passionately for fifty years without diminishing. The true products of Catholicism are the twisted, sanctimonious, mendacious creatures she is forgiving.

Indeed, Philomena makes the viewer step back and examine the sort of people who have inflicted this two thousand-year reign of terror under which the West has lived. Who are these monsters who would take the unnatural vow of celibacy and lord it over society with hypocritical, false morality, particularly when we are all products of an x-rated act? And it’s not like the Church in the 50s, when Philomena was subjected to these gross injustices, was so much different than it is today — the crimes against humanity are simply different, or are just coming to light. The reality is the election of Pope Francis is merely a cynical move, the type of political spin that Sixsmith himself might have engaged in when he worked for Tony Blair’s government. You cannot change an intrinsic wrong. You have to stop it altogether.

I don’t know how well Philomena will play either in heavily Christian America or to the rather conservative AMPAS — Oscar noms and wins are its only hope of getting broad recognition. Like the Holocaust, World War II or any other major conflict that mankind has endured and triumphed over, the Catholic reign of terror provides almost endless riveting stories — nothing is as tragic and dramatically heroic as gross injustice. Organized religion is a wide, deep river of gross injustices. I hope Philomena’s success paves the way for similar films in the future.

______________________________