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The Magdalene Sisters (2002)
Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, 2002

What do you do with a fallen woman?

You send her out of your world, out of your sight, to cleanse herself from the sins she has committed. Under the strict regime of vigilant nuns, through hard work and penance, she may be able to escape the burning fires of Hell. It's all for the best, you know.

This is the rhetoric parents and guardians learned from the priests they went to when their child had fallen outside the Irish Catholic definition of a good girl. Ashamed, outraged or desperate they would take the priest's advice and send her away to be confined at the Magdalene Laundries, where working long and unpaid hours she just might save her soul. Said the priests.

The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Peter Mullan, exposes what went on behind the tall convent walls where the "whores" were kept. Through the lives of four girls we are shown what "crimes" they had committed, and what punishment they received. For most of them, it was a lifetime of slavery and abuse.

"No mortal sin justifies this place" - Bernadette

The story opens with how three young girls - Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette - each have the misfortune to be singled out as fallen women. One of them has been raped, the other is labelled flirtatious, the third has given birth to an illegitimate child who she is forced to give up soon after birth. To avoid the shame or their bad influence on other girls, they are sent to a convent outside Dublin run by the Sisters of Mercy. Received by the acidic nun in charge of the place, Sister Bridget, they learn that whatever they did in the outside world is all irrelevant - they are all sinners here.

The Sisters of Mercy turn out to be all but merciful. They have the upper hand, and they use it to whip the inmates into submission. Their abuse is physical, psychological and spiritual. The imprisoned women are taught that they are unworthy sinners, and with time, most of them come to accept it. They work and eat in silence, and friendship between them is not accepted. It is no wonder that all the older women in the convent are mad in one way or other.

"You are not a man of God!" - Crispina

There is plenty of brutality in the movie, which is fortunately lightened up by glimpses of humour and secret friendships between the girls. One of the most chilling episodes occurs when a black-clad nun taunts the women, lined up naked in front of her, about their bodies. A bittersweet revenge on the system comes when one girl puts nettles into the clothes of a priest who has sexually abused another, making him strip naked in front of the congregation.

We are shown the possible ways out of the convent: One girl is picked up by her brother after her family agrees to take her back. Another is gradually broken down mentally and finally sent away to an asylum. One girl flees and is brought back by her own father, who tells her never to come home again. She then becomes a novice, vowing to stay in the convent forever. The young girls always dream of flight, but the older ones have become settled, institutionalized.

Master sheet-dealings (alt.anagrams)

The director has made a good, stirring movie. The pictures tell the story better than words ever can. We are shown how the girls are torn out of their lives by a force stronger than themselves. We really participate in the four years or so of the girls' lives in the laundry - I several times wanted to slap the unflinching nuns for being so self-righteous.

Geraldine McEwan does a great job as the headmistress-like Sister Bridget, who despite her sadistic cruelty comes across as someone doing what she thinks is right. Eileen Walsh does a wonderful, tragic portrayal of Crispina, a simple girl who is slowly driven out of her mind by the harsh life among the Sisters. Nora-Jane Noone is a nasty, proud Bernadette who you still can't help feeling sympathy for. Anne-Marie Duff's Margaret and Dorothy Duffy's Rose are kinder, but more anonymous characters, who still manage to give faces to the suffering we see. Phyllis McMahon, who stayed one year in a Magdalene convent before she left in disgust, plays Sister Augusta, and Peter Mullan himself makes an appearance as the angry father bringing his daughter back out of fear of God.

General theme: sadists (alt.anagrams)

Several critics have held that the film is too much a series of anecdotes without a real narrative. This may be true, and Peter Mullan has defended himself saying that he wanted to show life there as it really was, rather than making up a story that would take the focus away from the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries.

The film was strongly condemned by spokesmen of the Catholic Church, who called it a series of lies. However, Peter Mullan based his work on a BBC 4 documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, and several interviews with women who knew all too well that it was true. It is not meant as a critique of the church, Mullan insists, but as a testimony about a society where religious moralistic laws were taken much too seriously. The Irish themselves have flocked to the cinemas to learn about their recent history - one third of the adult population has watched it.

An estimated 30,000 Irish women were sent to these institutions from the 18th to the 20th century. Although they were particularly numerous in Ireland, the same institutions have existed all over the world, including England, Scotland and the US. The church keeps its records closed, and has never offered any official apology to the women who suffered in its institutions. The Irish state did this in 1996, when the last Magdalene Asylum was closed.

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