But the Venice prize announcement prompted the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatorio Romano to dismiss the film as ‘an angry and rancourous provocation’ for its unapologetic bias against the custodial institutions of the church of forty years ago.
Set in the Ireland of the mid-sixties, Mullan’s film chronicles the misfortunes of three teenage girls condemned to an indefinite period of detention at a Magdalene laundry.
The Magdalene laundries were Catholic gulags for ‘fallen women’ run by nuns to provide vestment-washing facilities for the priests of the diocese.
As the ex-prostitute Mary Magdalene atoned for her sins in the Bible by washing the feet of Jesus, so too would the wayward girls of Ireland make amends for their moral lapses by washing the socks of the clergy. The terms of detention were set by the priests who sent them there, and the girls had to work in conditions that were tantamount to slavery – laundering garments seven days a week without pay. Girls who were deemed by the nuns to be insolent, stubborn or just plain unrepentant could end up spending the rest of their lives in the laundries without ever seeing their families again.
Mullan’s film opens with a brisk introduction to his three main characters and the circumstances that led to their incarceration. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), is raped by her cousin at a wedding.
Her male relatives blame her for tempting him and she is sent to the nuns to atone for her ‘sin’. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a pretty orphan, is observed by a priest flirting with some boys at the orphanage railings. Regarded as a moral danger to the local youth, she too is despatched to the dubious care of the Magdalene nuns.
Another girl, Rose (Dorothy Duffy), has just given birth to an illegitimate child and is under duress from a priest to give him up for adoption. Her ashamed parents want nothing to do with her or their grandchild and she is handed over to the priest for delivery to the laundry.
The three girls find themselves locked into a morally warped world run by a cantankerous old nun named Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) who treats the girls with contempt and makes every effort to convince them of their worthlessness in the eyes of God. Mullan drives home the grim reality of their Magdalene life, avoiding the conventional titillations of the women-behind-bars genre into which this film loosely fits, to deliver a polemic of sustained fury against the arrogance and corruption of the church.
Mullan deserves credit for bringing such a harrowing story to light, but this film is tough going – two hours of unrelentingly righteous outrage can become a monotone drone that saps the stamina of viewers who visit the cinema for entertainment purposes only.
And the force of his message is undermined by the artifice of his epilogue, a where-are-they now finale that rings a false note in an otherwise convincing story, given that his characters are fictional composites of actual Magdalene Sisters, not real people.
Mullan’s film will be an affront to the generations of kind and caring priests and nuns who kept the poor children of Ireland literate, numerate, clothed and shod, when successive governments, whether native or foreign, failed to do so. The church deserves censure for its failures and its victims undoubtedly deserve apologies and reparations for damage done at the hands of bad clergy.
But credit for its good deeds is unlikely to feature in any film made at a time when directors and documentarians are queueing up to throw rocks at the crumbling edifice of Catholicism.
Would that they had had the courage to do so four decades ago when the church was a formidable monolith empowered to do as it pleased with young women who committed no crime, but had merely deviated from the proprieties of their time – then they might have saved some of the Magdalene girls from permanent psychological damage.
Mullan’s biases notwithstanding, this unsettling drama deserves to be seen for its unflinching depiction of an institution that the Catholic church would rather deny and forget, and for the riveting performances by the three young leads. ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ is now showing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Village Theatre VII.
inspired by documentary
Scottish director Peter Mullan was inspired to write the screenplay for the ‘Magdalene Sisters’ after watching a TV documentary about the lives of Ireland’s so-called ‘fallen women’ that moved him to tears.
The salaciously-titled expos