Starring: Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff
Director: and written by Peter Mullan
SCOTS actor-director Peter Mullan has made an expertly crafted but grim film about the Catholic Church in Ireland in the mid-60s.
He has researched the laundries which were run by sisters who took in young women who had had children out of wedlock or who were considered wayward in sexual behaviour. Often they were called Magdalenes.
In recent years, in the English-speaking world especially, stories of physical and sexual abuse in Church parishes and institutions have surfaced with many priests and brothers facing civil courts and imprisonment.
The Magdalene Sisters includes a priest character, the chaplain, whose behaviour reflects this kind of sexual abuse.
Fewer sisters have been in court although many stories have been reported of physical cruelty rather than sexual abuse. Much of this cruelty took place during the 1950s and 1960s. The nun characters in this film were trained in the 1950s or earlier and the action takes place during the 1960s.
The film will certainly cause sadness in audiences who have been disturbed by the experiences of the 1990s, the revelations, the court cases and sentences. It will cause sadness for those who have positive memories of education by sisters and for those who want to see pleasant images of the Church and Church personnel.
However, this story, which makes more impact perhaps because it is being seen rather than merely being read, is no less true than many of the recent stories that have been reported even in the Catholic press.
Is the film an attack on the Catholic Church? Peter Mullan says no. That was not his intention. It is a critique of a religious culture.
Obviously it is an attack on and a critique of much of the harshness of the Church which has often been seen as characteristic of a stern Irish Catholicism. It is a critique of the abuse of power and authority in the name of the Church. (An apposite Gospel reference would be Matthew 20:24-28 with Jesus’ words on power, authority and service.)
Mullan’s comment is that Ireland was a theocracy. He has pointed out that in a theocracy, those who accepted this situation were prone to dominating behaviour in God’s name. This means that the sisters themselves were victims of this religious-civil collaboration.
While priests (as in the film) would make judgments about the young women who were to be sent to the laundries to keep them disciplined and under control, it was also the families who sent their daughters.
The latter situation is seen in the film with the young woman who is raped by a cousin. She is either not believed or is blamed and is the innocent scapegoat for the wrong done by the man.
At his Venice Festival press conference, Peter Mullan discussed other theocracies and the example was given of the Taliban – which led to some absurdly exaggerated press reports that he had likened the nuns in the film to Taliban leaders.
Although the film does not touch on it – except perhaps in the scene where a benefactor brings the first film to the convent (The Bells of St Mary’s) and in the blessing of the new washing machines – this was the period of the Second Vatican Council and the call to rethink religious life and ministry. At what stage this reform was introduced in Ireland, those who remember can tell us, but it might have given some greater nuances to the characters and the behaviour in the film to make it even more compelling drama.
One British press reviewer remarked that The Magdalene Sisters was a ‘one-note’ film with no variation on its grim storytelling.
However, this is the film that Mullan has made. The performances of the girls are first rate.
The nuns are less clearly drawn, mainly being seen in supervision sequences or in the refectory where their meal was more lavish than that of the girls. It is Geraldine McEwan’s performance as the superior that demands attention. She has inherited a tradition of the superior being strong, that her word is final and that she expresses God’s will. She is shown to be cruel at times.
Much as we might regret it, we can all probably remember religious who acted in this way. We might want to hurry to add
that not all religious were like this. That is right. But this film is a drama rather than a documentary. Most audiences will appreciate, as they would with a film criticising the police or politicians, that the majority of members of the profession did not act in this way.
The Magdalene Sisters can be seen as part of an honest examination of conscience by the Church and a request for repentance, an expression of sorrow and an apology, something which Pope John Paul II has exemplified and encouraged in recent years.