Saint Judy

SAINT JUDY. US, 2018. Starring Michelle Monaghan, Leeba Lumy, Common, Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Ben Schnetzer, Gabriel Bateman, Mykelti T Williamson. Directed by Sean Harnish.  106 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).

The saint in question? Judith L.Wood, Immigration Attorney. The title? In fact, her ex-husband tells her that, while people call her a saint, she isn’t – but she lives and works like one.

In a way, this earnest portrait of Judy Wood is something like a promotion for the cause of canonisation. Of course, we see her as an ordinary human being, married but divorced, with the son whom she cherishes but also overlooks because of her commitment to her work and to her clients. But, she is committed to causes – but, more importantly, she is committed to clients.

Actually, this is a true story and the actual Judy Wood appears momentarily at the end of the film before the credits. (And, as usual, in a biopic, the star (in this case Michelle Monaghan) who plays the role looks far more attractive and glamorous than the subject in real life!)

In many ways, this is a film with a cause, humane treatment of men and women applying for asylum in the United States and held in detention centres. While they do have the right to legal aid, the lawyers tend to be overworked, not well paid, eager to put the final stamp on the documents rather than show a concern and communicate with their clients, learn their stories, share their plight.

Which, of course, is what Judy Wood does. Moving from New Mexico to California in 2005 with her son, she is employed by a local immigration lawyer, Ray Hernandez (played by Alfred Molina who also acts one of the producers for the film, obviously committed to its causes). However, he has become jaded, has lost his initial enthusiasm, is irritated by Judy and fires her. Judy does have the capacity (and maybe this is what saints are like, but not always easy to live and work with) and visits her clients. Many of them become quite devoted to her, in the over 200 cases that she takes up, but, and this is a difficulty with the film not providing background to her other work, the screenplay focuses on one case in particular. And, an important case it is.

She finds the file of Asefa Ashwari, Leeba Lumy) almost in a catatonic state, drugged, uncommunicative. Very quickly, Judy gets official documents for an African who is selling takeaway hotdogs but is really a doctor. He helps her in her work. Asefa’s physical and mental condition improve and Judy then pursues her case. Asefa’s story is told in vivid flashbacks, a young girl in Afghanistan, intelligent, taught to read by her mother, then setting up a school for young girls, disapproved of by her father and his strict Islamic discipline, arrested by the officials, treated brutally – something which Asefa prefers to forget but is finally persuaded to speak frankly and truthfully to the judge in her hearing.

For audiences around the world who are aware of parallel situations in the many migrants and asylum seekers kept in detention, the sequences where the judge (Alfre Woodard), while listening sympathetically, has to interpret legislation one might say, over-objectively, as does the lawyer representing the government (Common). This is especially the case where she explains that American law considers persecuted groups and minorities but there is no room for women in these categories. Asefa is to be deported.

One of the legal aspects that emerges, and offers grounds for an appeal, is that Asefa was brutally treated as a woman, including multiple rape, not just because she was a woman but because she was considered an enemy of the state. Judy finally present an appeal before three justices – and the audience may be again surprised by the legal and legalistic questions and problems that they raises.

Audiences who don’t like to be moralised at have found the film too earnest. Mainstream audiences who like a story, who can empathise with good characters, who are disturbed by social problems, especially by the victimisation of women and migrants, will be certainly on side with Saint Judy.

Heritage films                                      Released August 20th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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