A nun leads Rose (Dorothy Duffy), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) in The Magdalene Sisters. Courtesy photo
'The Magdalene Sisters' revisits the sins of the Catholic Church

Until 1996, the Taliban operated in Ireland. The Hibernian branch of zealots called itself the Sisters of Mercy, and imposed its rigid brand of piety through a gulag of Catholic workhouses for wayward girls. The Magdalene Sisters dramatizes the real-life cases of four teenagers who were incarcerated and brutalized in one of these Christian establishments. The asylums were named for Mary Magdalene, the Biblical sinner believed to have attained salvation by devoting the rest of her life to penance.

Rose (Duffy) and Crispina (Walsh) are unwed mothers forced to give up their babies and then their own freedom. Margaret (Duff) is raped by her drunken cousin and then further victimized by consignment to a Magdalene shelter. The fourth, an attractive lass named Bernadette (Noone), seems relatively free of sin. "I'm just wondering why I'm here," she tells Sister Bridget, the sanctimonious tyrant into whose clutches she has been delivered. "I've never been with any man."

"But you want to," replies the good sister.

Viewers of The Magdalene Sisters might want to hold the Catholic Church in Ireland accountable for thousands of blighted lives. Exposure of ungodly cruelty perpetrated by its agents provoked rage from the Vatican when the Venice Film Festival awarded a Golden Lion to Peter Mullan's feature. When Miramax acquired distribution rights, the Catholic League accused the company of an anti-Catholic agenda and demanded that its parent company, Disney, divest itself of Miramax. William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, defended the Magdalene asylums with two arguments that reek of moral relativism: Protestant-run facilities were no better, and standards of conduct were different back then.

The Magdalene Sisters begins a long, long time ago, the year 1964, when Margaret, Bernadette, and Rose are each mustered into involuntary servitude to Sister Bridget and her devout deputies. They are forced to spend their days scrubbing dirty clothes for a commercial laundry service that compensates the nuns, who pay their workers nothing. Except for Christmas Day, when each girl receives an orange and is permitted to watch a movie, The Bells of St. Mary's, daily life behind the locked gates is an unrelenting horror. Inmates are forced to follow a dismal regimen of silence, prayer, and toil. Resistance is punished swiftly and violently, and those who attempt escape are soon brought back and made to regret their defiance of righteous authority. Release comes arbitrarily if at all; one girl's brother suddenly, after four years, arrives to take her home, but another inmate dies in her 40th year of confinement. Day after day, year after year, the nuns pursue their holy mission of rooting out vice by tormenting their helpless charges. "All the mortal sins in the world would not justify this place," contends Bernadette.

The Magdalene Sisters
Writ. & dir. Peter Mullan; feat. Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh (R)
The Magdalene Sisters is essentially a women's prison drama set in a hellish institution where sadism and misogyny masquerade as rectitude. With a disconcerting twinkle in her baby blue eyes, Geraldine McEwan plays Sister Bridget as a lethal combination of absolute certainty and absolute power. A rare moment of relief comes when a religious ceremony is disrupted by the itching powder Margaret slipped into the presiding priest's raiment. Later, in this somber movie's saddest scene, she slips through the gate into the bright, verdant meadow of emancipation, before accepting her fate and turning back to the ruthless rule of Sister Bridget. Initial reactions to undeserved confinement are rebellion, but for many of the girls, fantasies of escape yield to submission, despair, and madness.

To reinforce the effect of a harrowing documentary, closing titles in the film inform us of what later became of each of the principal characters. If their years in the Magdalene asylum prepared them for eternal salvation, the ordeal apparently did little to improve the women's terrestrial condition. As many as 30,000 Irish women, we are told, were Magdalene alumnae, and it is likely that every one would have preferred Notre Dame and to have pledged Theta Phi Alpha rather be conscripted into the Magdalene sorority. Church doctrine insists that all of us born of flesh are imperfect vessels of immortal spirit. To err is human, to deny the error a common tendency of powerful human institutions. The Catholic Church long tried to evade its responsibility for the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, and priestly pederasty. Little that the imperial English did was more insidious than the Church's crimes against the women of Ireland. The Magdalene Sisters exposes another shameful chapter in the history of outrages committed in the tarnished name of religious purity. •

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