The Magdalene Sisters; Mullan’s Scathing Indictment of the Church’s Not-So-Distant Past
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
By some accounts, “The Magdalene Sisters” is one of the year’s worthiest films. Reviews are glowing, Miramax has acquired it, and three weeks before its American premiere at the New York Film Festival it won the Golden Lion in Venice.
By other accounts, the movie is scurrilous trash. A review in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano deemed it an “angry and rancorous provocation,” and Vatican radio reportedly said the Venice jury penned its “most offensive and pathetic page” when it gave the picture its highest prize.
Could it be that the Vatican’s late-summer foray into film criticism was not 100 percent objective? It could indeed. “The Magdalene Sisters” is an emotionally pungent, sociologically scathing look at horrors not only sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church but born and bred in its theological bosom.
The abuses it depicts aren’t as timely as those spotlighted by current scandals over pedophile priests. But they’re hardly buried in the distant past: the film takes place in the 1960s, and similar doings persisted until 1996, when the Magdalene Sisters’ last Dickensian workhouse finally closed its doors. The evidence is harshly relevant in that revealvs can transpire when a powerful religious institution has free reign to act out near-medieval levels of bigotry and paranoia with regard to women and their sexuality. It’s worth stressing that writer-director Peter Mullan was inspired to tackle this grim subject after seeing an English documentary on the topic, “Sex in a Cold Climate,” made for Channel 4 television. His awful fiction is anchored in equally awful fact.
“The Magdalene Sisters” begins with brief dramatic scenes centering on three young Irish women. Margaret is molested by her cousin as their family makes merry at a wedding, and word immediately spreads that her honor is no longer unsullied. Rose lies in a hospital bed with her newly born illegitimate son, vainly pleading with her mother to at least glance at the little nipper before she hands it over for adoption. Bernadette attracts hoots and catcalls from horny boys in the schoolyard, and while she doesn’t seem inclined to offer them her favors, she’s flattered by the attention.
The common denominator of these otherwise unrelated incidents is, you guessed it, sin. Each of the girls is soon dispatched to one of the homes for wayward women operated by the Sisters of the Magdalene Order, a gaggle of church-funded nuns who have taken it upon themselves to save their charges from evil urges by imposing upon them the abstemious virtues of forced celibacy, mindless labor, and complete isolation from the outside world.
They spend their days scrubbing laundry, their nights cultivating wan friendships and dreaming of a freedom most of them fear will never come. It’s sadly ironic that fallen girls like Margaret and Bernadette never even had the fun of falling; in addition to its expose of the Nazi-like nuns, the film points a damning finger at families all too eager for an excuse to banish a potentially unmarriageable daughter and give itself one less mouth to feed.
The inmates aren’t deluded in their fear of lifelong incarceration, moreover. Many real-life women grew old and died under the sisters’ unmerciful care. And compassion could be hard to come by if physical or mental illness reared its head, as Mullan illustrates through a character named Crispina, a worsening psychotic who’s shipped off to an asylum (itself more a warehouse than a hospital) far too late.
Mullan is best known for his performances in movies like Ken Loach’s naturalistic “My Name Is Joe” and Mike Figgis’s experimental “Miss Julie,” but he made an acclaimed feature-directing debut five years ago with “Orphans”. Not surprisingly, the strongest suit of “The Magdalene Sisters” is its acting, always skillful and sincere, if a bit too fervid at times. Highest honors go to Geraldine McEwan as the top nun of the outfit, an utterly self-righteous crone who sees herself as an earthbound angel of mercy — as we discover in the movie’s most memorable scene, when the sight of saintly Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” moves her to narcissistic tears during a Christmas screening at the reformatory.
Mullan has reaped a windfall of free publicity from the Vatican’s denunciation of his film. This bonus has followed the movie to America, where the ever-vigilant Catholic League has demanded that Walt Disney Pictures cut its Miramax subsidiary loose, arguing that there’s no point in maligning nuns who wanted only to tend and “empower” women branded as pariahs by the Irish mores of their day. The achievement of Mullan’s film is to unmask the sexual dread and patriarchal animus of both the unmerciful sisters and the larger society — one pillar of which was the Catholic establishment — that supported and encouraged their appalling work until an alarmingly short time ago. It’s a major work by a major new filmmaker.