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John DoughertyMarch 08, 2024
Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in ‘Philadelphia’ (photo: Wikipedia)Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in ‘Philadelphia’ (photo: Wikipedia)

The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.

The late director Jonathan Demme loved using close-ups. He would fill the frame with an actor’s face, gazing directly into the camera, their eyes piercing the fourth wall to reach you in your seat. In “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), he used the technique to create an unnerving, inescapable sense of immediacy, trapping you in the story like a bug pinned for display. In “Philadelphia”—the 1993 legal AIDS drama that won Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar and is this week’s Catholic Movie Club selection—Demme uses close-ups to create a deep and sometimes uncomfortable sense of intimacy. You find yourself face to face with characters as they ask difficult questions, reckon with mortality, worry about a friend. Demme erases any distance that would allow the audience to stand in cold, detached judgment. He never wants you to forget the humanity of his subjects.

Considering the subject matter, this was a somewhat radical move in Hollywood at the time. The AIDS crisis played out on the margins, in the shadows, ignored by a government and public who lacked the empathy or will to address it properly. It was rare to see queer characters in mass media unless they were a punchline. Demme was inspired to make the film after a close friend was diagnosed with AIDS (the Spanish illustrator and filmmaker Juan Suárez Botas, who passed away in 1992). He reached out to his protegé, the openly gay screenwriter, director and activist Ronald Nyswaner, about developing a film that would bring the then-taboo topic into the mainstream. “Jonathan said that he was terrified,” Nyswaner told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “The only thing he knew how to do was to make a movie.”

The film tells the story of Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks), a rising star at a Philadelphia corporate law firm, who is closeted at work and secretly living with H.I.V./AIDS. When he is fired after a minor mishap, he suspects that his bosses discovered he had AIDS and manufactured an excuse to lay him off. He approaches personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him in a discrimination lawsuit. Joe is homophobic but—seeing a mirror of the racial prejudice that he’s faced as a Black man—he eventually agrees. It will be a difficult road to victory as they face tenacious opposing lawyers, homophobia and Andy’s worsening symptoms.

“Philadelphia” was criticized at the time of its release for being too safe, more concerned with changing attitudes than structures. It is not an unfounded criticism, especially when so much of the film is told from Joe’s perspective as he slowly overcomes his bigotry. But that is also the point: This is a film aimed at the Doubting Thomases, the ones who dismissed the AIDS crisis as the natural consequence of a risky and deviant lifestyle. Demme wants to portray the humanity and experiences of L.G.B.T.Q. people, but he is perhaps even more interested in dispelling then-popular stereotypes about AIDS and inviting prejudiced audience members to open their minds and hearts.

Speaking of Thomas the Apostle, there is a moment in the film that reminds me of his story. Andy’s case rests on the claim that one of his bosses noticed a skin lesion on his forehead— Kaposi’s sarcoma, a telltale skin cancer caused by the immunosuppressive effects of H.I.V./AIDS —and deduced his illness. The firm’s lawyer (Mary Steenburgen) argues that the lesion was too small to notice; when she holds a mirror at a distance, Andy struggles to identify the lesions on his own face. Joe counters by asking Andy to take off his shirt, revealing a field of dark purple lesions: shocking, unmistakable.

You can feel the impact it has all of the people in the courtroom who must now reckon with the physical reality of AIDS for the first time. For me, this scene echoes the resurrected Christ inviting Thomas to touch his wounds so that he will believe. Sometimes that is necessary, but Christ’s response to Thomas is just as important: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn 20:29).

“Philadelphia” invites us to broaden our imaginations, to turn our attention to those who suffer in forced silence. At this time in the liturgical year when we meditate on Christ’s Passion, we must also not forget the “crucified people” of today who continue to bear Christ’s suffering. We cannot look away; like a Demme close-up with its inescapable intimacy, we must face the suffering of our siblings in Christ head-on. Our faith is one of open eyes and open hearts.

“Philadelphia” is streaming on Starz.

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