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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2003

Forgive us Father, for absolutely nothing

The Magdalene Sisters

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Peter Mullan
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"In any God-fearing country, to save the men from temptation, you have to remove it." Sound familiar? Like the voice of Islamic fundamentalism, perhaps, with its veils and burqas, its arrogant intolerance bred of religious certainty?

News photo
(From left) Geraldine McEwan, Dorothy Duffy, Nora-Jane Noone and Anne-Marie Duff in "The Magdalene Sisters"

Well, guess again. It's an Irish Roman Catholic nun who's speaking those words in director Peter Mullan's "The Magdalene Sisters," a scathing critique of abuse of religious authority, which seems especially timely given the ongoing scandals afflicting the church in the United States.

"The Magdalene Sisters" looks at a different time and place -- 1960s Ireland, where the Church was nearly as powerful as the state -- but it documents abuse that has only recently been revealed. Mullan's targets are the Magdalene homes, named after the biblical prostitute-turned-Jesus groupie Mary Magdalene, which were run by the Sisters of Mercy as a "refuge" for so-called "fallen women."

Basing his story on actual tales told by survivors of the institutions in the 1997 documentary "Sex in a Cold Climate," Mullan shows how certain tyrannical nuns ran their homes more like jails than refuges. Over 30,000 women were detained in these institutions, the last of which only closed in 1996, and were forced to work as slave laborers in the nun-run laundries.

As Sister Bridget, played by Geraldine McEwan in a brilliantly domineering performance, puts it: "You'll work beyond human endurance for penance. Laundry is a means of redeeming yourself." It's also a means of providing a nice income and comfy existence to the convent's sisters, but before we consider that, we have to ask: "Penance for what?"

Mullan's film gives us a trio of girls who are typical of those incarcerated at the Magdalene homes. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a wedding party; when she emerges crying and tells her family, they only blame the victim. The next morning she's dumped with the nuns to remove her family's "shame." Rose (Dorothy Duffy) gives birth to a child out of wedlock; right after the birth, it's ripped from her arms and given up for adoption. Her father and the parish priest remain expressionless as the girl breaks down hysterically, begging to keep her child. "It's a grievous sin you've committed," says the priest -- one which also requires "penance" at the nuns' laundry.

Poor Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), raised at an orphanage, doesn't even have to "sin"; she simply arouses a bit too much interest from the local boys, which gets her committed. When she protests that she's "never even been with a boy," Sister Bridget shoots back, "I know a little temptress when I see one." And there's no arguing with Sister Bridget, unless you're looking for a thrashing.

Once inside a Magdalene home, there's no sure way out. Only the nuns can decide when you've been morally cleansed, but they'd rather you just keep on cleaning that dirty laundry and making them money. One older woman, Katy (Britta Smith), has worked there for 40 years. Another girl who attempts escape is dragged back by her father, who beats her savagely, shouting, "You'll stay here till you die! You got no father or mother! You come back again and I'll cripple you!" To the other girls who watch with horror and revulsion, he roars, "What are you looking at, you whores?" Ah, yes -- the good old days of omnipotent patriarchy.

But what "The Magdalene Sisters" makes perfectly clear is that women -- in this case, the Sisters of Mercy -- are also perfectly capable of oppressive and sadistic behavior, given the chance. The problem, as Mullan sees it, is power, which corrupts regardless of gender. (Which is why the current wave of action babes killing scores of people -- from Demi Moore to Angelina Jolie to Uma Thurman -- somehow sounds like a crock when it's presented as "female empowerment.")

After fully examining the twisted morality and brutality that was rampant in the Magdalene homes, Mullan's film settles into the mode of an escape movie, like "Rabbit-Proof Fence" or "Girl, Interrupted," in which Bernadette, Margaret and Rose try to find a way to freedom. Their desperation becomes stifling as the film ever so slowly cranks up the tension.

Mullan's association with director Ken Loach -- as an actor, he appeared in both "Riff-Raff" and "My Name Is Joe" -- suggests he might be a bit of a firebrand, and "The Magdalene Sisters" certainly proves that assumption correct. He works up a tidal wave of righteous indignation, the best kind of fury, and lets it rip. After all, wasn't it Jesus himself who saved a "fallen woman" by saying, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?" Anyone who's ever been in a Catholic school or knew someone who was, with nasty nuns who rapped rulers over knuckles or pulled head-trips of eternal damnation for something like kissing a boy, will be ready to stand and cheer when the girls get their revenge.

Needless to say, the Vatican blew a gasket over this one, yet what can I say? The truth hurts. But Rome has never been very good at admitting its errors. Just ask Galileo.

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