"The Magdalene Sisters" is a fist of fury, a savage, sledgehammer attack on questionable practices by Ireland's Catholic Church that is so fierce and furious, such a rip-roaring exposé, that the Vatican itself howled in outrage.
When "Magdalene," written and directed by actor Peter Mullan, won the prestigious Golden Lion for best film at last year's Venice Film Festival, the Vatican's daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, called it "an angry and rancorous provocation."
This hardly hurt "Magdalene's" reception in Ireland, where an estimated one out of four adults saw the film. More than that, women who survived the establishments the film is based on said the reality was even worse, and the author of the definitive account of the now-discredited system told the press "you just cannot imagine how miserable and inhuman those places were."
Until the last one closed in 1996, more than 30,000 women and young girls were detained in Magdalene Asylums, run by the Sisters of Mercy and other orders. Named after Mary Magdalene, "a sinner of the worst kind" who was forgiven by Christ, these were the places where embarrassed families deposited unwed mothers and other young women whose "moral crimes" were thought to shame society.
Once inside, these women were forbidden contact with the outside world, which returned the favor by ignoring what went on behind the walls. The inmates were forced to work without pay in the Magdalene's institutional laundries and were in general treated like prisoners. Joni Mitchell wrote a song, "The Magdalene Laundries," about the system in 1997, but it was a 1990s British TV documentary called "Sex in a Cold Climate" that caught Mullan's interest and led to this implacable, uncompromising piece of work.
Best known for his starring role in Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe," which won him the best actor award at Cannes, Mullan is content with a brief cameo as an unforgiving father in this film. Unabashedly outraged by the injustices of the system, Mullan and his cast have created a fierce piece of agitprop cinema that is as merciless as the system it is driven to expose.
"Magdalene" begins with the back stories of three teenage girls, all of whom were, for different reasons, callously stigmatized and abandoned by their families and deposited in the same asylum one day in 1964.
It's Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) we encounter first, and we watch with increasing horror as she is raped by her cousin at a family wedding and then carried off to the Magdalenes by her chagrined father, even though what happened is not even remotely her doing or responsibility.
Flirty Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) doesn't have any family, but the nuns at the orphanage she's grown up in think she's getting a little too popular with the neighborhood boys, and off she goes to the Magdalenes as well.
Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has the most traditional and in some ways the most heartbreaking case. She's just given birth to a little boy out of wedlock, and though she clearly adores him, her parents emotionally bludgeon her into immediately giving him up for adoption and then watch stonily as she too is bundled off to the nuns.
In charge of helping the fallen find their way back to Christ, the provider of "the earthly means to cleanse your very soul" is Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), an arrogant, terrifying figure who changes girls' names and cuts off their hair with equal hauteur.
The asylum turns out to be a place from hell, the nuns in charge figures from a nightmare from which there is no awakening. Unbending, implacable, sadistic, the sisters forbid conversation during the day and, says one girl, "If they see you getting friendly, they skin you alive." The sisters don't hesitate to abuse their power, even, in perhaps the film's most devastating scene, lining the girls up naked and making humiliating comments about their bodies.
The desperation that breeds in this savage atmosphere makes the inmates spiteful, unfair and worse. "What in God's name have we done to deserve this," one of them wails. "All the mortal sins in the world wouldn't justify this place." No inmate of the big house in any prison movie ever felt worse about his surroundings, or more anxious to somehow get over the wall.
Because it is so relentless in its depiction of institutional horrors, "The Magdalene Sisters" can be difficult to watch. These truly are lost girls, but not for the reasons the church believes. Rather they are lost to mercy, lost to compassion, lost to even the idea of love.
Paradoxically, however, while "Sisters" is a machine constructed to devastate audiences, its pared-down, neorealistic style keeps the story from feeling excessive. Graced with performers who bring a purity of emotion to their work, the film is always dramatically convincing. There is a fundamental air of truth about it, a sense that, horrific though things seem, this is how it must have been.
Because of its relevance to contemporary Irish life, "The Magdalene Sisters" has been written about extensively by Irish journalists. One of the most perceptive articles was by Fintan O'Toole, who shrewdly pointed out in the Guardian that this film belongs "in a familiar genre: the Hollywood prison drama," a convention, he adds, which "also makes it watchable. Particularly in a small and relatively intimate society, revelations of this kind are extremely painful. The conventions of a familiar genre dull the pain a little. At least for an Irish audience, Mullan got the balance between truth and entertainment about right."
He performed the same service for an American audience, and he did it well.
'The Magdalene Sisters'
MPAA rating: R, for violence/cruelty, nudity, sexual content and language
Times guidelines: Mature subject matter, profanity, non-exploitative nudity
Geraldine McEwan ... Sister Bridget
Anne-Marie Duff ... Margaret
Nora-Jane Noone ... Bernadette
Dorothy Duffy ... Rose/Patricia
Eileen Walsh ... Crispina
Scottish Screen, the Film Council and the Irish Film Board in association with Momentum Pictures presents a PFP Films production in association with Temple Films, released by Miramax Films. Director Peter Mullan. Producer Frances Higson. Executive producers Ed Guiney, Paul Trijbits. Screenplay Peter Mullan. Cinematographer Nigel Willoughby. Editor Colin Monie. Costumes Trisha Biggar. Music Craig Armstrong. Production design Mark Leese. Art directors Jean Kerr, Caroline Grebbell. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
In limited release.