Freedom of the Self

in 24th Stockholm International Film Festival

by Gyözö Mátyás

The spotlight of the Stockholm International Film Festival turned to freedom this year, with most of the films selected highlighting the necessity of freedom for human existence. To emphasise this fact, the festival could hardly have made a better choice than to invite internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to be a member of the jury. Since he is under surveillence by the authorities and is not allowed to travel, his personal life epitomises the fact that freedom is essential.

The festival’s comprehensive focus on freedom offered a revelatory context for the films — even those which had already been discussed and analysed by critics. In most cases, thinking about the films in terms of freedom highlighted new and unexpected layers of meaning. A film such as Philomena (directed by Stephen Frears) was revealed to represent different aspects and shades of freedom in a sophisticated way, a quality which had not been the primary focus in previous commentary on the film.

Philomena was screened in the Open Zone section where, along with a couple of other movies, it showcased the theme of gay love. In Philomena the theme is represented in a subliminal way, but the subtext inevitably intensified the topic’s presence.

In Stephen Frears’ movie the heroine, Philomena, after a long search for her abducted son, Anthony, finally tracks him down with the assistance of Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist. It turns out that Anthony (renamed Michael in America) was gay. What’s more, he was a high ranking official in the Republican party in the US during the eighties and early nineties, which must have been a really harsh time for those living alternative lifestyles.

In this, the film takes us to the deepest dimension of freedom since it confronts the sharp conflict between strictly conservative — sometimes already obscure — principles of the party (related to the supposed requirements of the voters) and the individual’s personal convictions and attitudes. How can this occasionally fusty traditionalism be compatible with a subversive new lifestyle, if at all?

Here we can observe the subtle structural element of the composition through which Stephen Frears makes basic principles, values, even ideologies collide and “clash”.

Differences of culture, values and temperament are deliberately set up as the chief narrative motivators. To intensify the spiritual tension of the movie, the director chose an implausible pairing of protagonists. Martin Sixsmith is a former government think-tank employee who has now returned to jounalism. He is a cynical, world-weary atheist who bluntly questions everyone and everything. Having been ousted from his inglorious political job, he seems even more bitter. He finds his opposite in the naive, sweet-tempered, working-class elderly Irish lady who still clings to her faith despite all the wrongs which have been done to her, mainly by the Catholic Church. This is a crucial point in the film, because here the Church or at least the Roscrea Convent is grimly judged by the authors of the movie. Philomena fell in love in her youth, gave birth to a baby and the nuns in the convent took the child away from her. And not only was she humiliated by being allowed to visit her son for only an hour a day, but later the nuns — making good business out of “fallen women’s” defenselessness — sold the children overseas.

As it turns out, the nuns felt they acted in accordance with their principles and rules. They thought that making Philomena suffer was part of her penance and designed to make her repent. This bigoted, rigid set of rules of institutionalized religion kills self-determination and free will.

After all of her suffering, Philomena still didn’t lose her faith; rather, she evolved her own restricted, personal, inner belief which has little to do with the authoritive religious practices of the Church.

Philomena’s story and attitude both exert great influnce over Martin Sixsmith’s comprehension and worldview.  As the story gradually unfolds, and Martin becomes aware of how many ruthless and unjust things were done to Philomena he feels his prejudice toward the Church confirmed. He thinks the rules and principles applied here by the convent are the absolute enemies of freedom.

On the other hand, Martin is deeply moved by Philomena’s vigor as she built up her inner faith and her relation to God, preserving her personal freedom. This is the point where the viewer may feel that Martin, the eternal sceptic, perhaps realises that deep inside he has also craved some kind of redemption.

Philomena is a brilliant film about a journey during which these two essentially different individuals, Philomena and Martin, learn to respect each other and by that experience they find their inner peace and freedom.

Edited by Alison Frank