Given the choice between dental surgery without anesthetic and The Magdalene Sisters, call your dentist for an appointment immediately. In either case, pain may be salutary in the long run. The film raises too many important issues to be dismissed as just another skirmish in the vast anti-Catholic crusade allegedly waged by enemies of the church in the media, the arts and the academy. It is, however, a strong polemic written and directed by a very angry artist intent on indicting not only the women’s workhouses run by the Catholic Church in Ireland until the end of the 20th century but the social and institutional structures that permitted them. Like any good prosecutor, he presents the evidence to the most damning effect possible. Peter Mullan, born in Ireland but living in Scotland, clearly has little love for the Irish church, or to judge from this film, the Irish people. At the same time, no one denies that the material he presents, however harshly, is for the most part accurate. Even if the facts might be selected unfairly and then embellished to serve the dramatic purposes of a film, the message provides the occasion for reflection for Catholics, and if we are to be truly impartial, for their critics as well.
Pardon the digression at the outset, but a comparison is irresistible at this point. I’ve been in Boston during the ordeal of the priest sex-abuse scandal. During those awful months as the story was breaking, each edition of The Boston Globe and every local newscast rubbed the proverbial salt into gaping wounds. The Globe was in the hunt for a Pulitzer prize, which it received. Clearly, some in the media were enjoying this a bit too much and using the occasion to settle long-held grudges against the Catholic Church, the old Irish establishment of the city or even with Cardinal Bernard Law, who stood with his chancery staff at the ground zero of what was casually and with varying degrees of accuracy called a coverup. Press coverage was often selective and at times nasty. Little if any mention was made of enormous legal fees at stake in the multimillion dollar settlements. Still, as we lived through this darkest of hours for the American Catholic Church, one could argue as I do, that we as Catholics were forced to examine clerical culture with its French-cuffed aristocracy with more honesty than ever before. As a church, we’re humbled and hurting, but probably a lot stronger as a result.
That is why I am reluctant to attack “The Magdalene Sisters,” despite its harshness. The fact that something like the events portrayed in the film could have happened in Western Europe in our lifetimes and in our church should encourage us to move beyond the indisputable elements of bias in the presentation to ponder several uncomfortable realities about our recent history. Again the comparison: It is quite justifiable to take satisfaction in the dramatic improvement in our preventing and handling sexual abuse by clergy, but it does not excuse us from asking how it could have gone on for so many years, even if the answers hurt.
“The Magdalene Sisters” retells the actual stories of four young women whose lives intersect in the workhouse. It begins in 1964, a century past in terms of watershed cultural revolutions of the 1960’s. The film opens at a wedding reception, where a priest entertains the guests with a rousing folk song, sung with the throbbing accompaniment of a Celtic drum. Dancing and drink abound. As though wanting to share a secret, a young man bids his cousin Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) to join him upstairs. She is stunned and furious at his advances, but he forces himself upon her. As the music blares on, she tells a friend what happened, and within minutes everyone in the room knows about her disgrace. The rapist becomes irrelevant to the story. Margaret is a fallen woman, and the next morning the parish priest bundles her off to a Magdalene House where she can repent of her sins.
Rose (Dorothy Duffy) first appears in the hospital holding her newborn son. Next to her, as motionless as a wax dummy, sits her stone-faced mother, who refuses to look at her daughter or her grandson. In the hallway, her father arranges for the priest to take the baby for adoption in a good Catholic home and for Rose to go to the workhouse. The family avoids both the embarrassment and inconvenience of the newborn and his mother.
The third story centers around Bernadette (Nora Jane-Noone), a senior girl at an orphanage, who is known both for her beauty and her vanity. The younger girls argue for the right to brush her hair, and the boys from the neighborhood hang out at the play-yard gate to make leering schoolboy remarks to her. She loves the attention, and realizes as if by instinct the power of her blossoming womanhood. The matron knows that such a girl will come to no good end, and transfers her to the Magdalene House to save her soul.
Saving souls is what Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) is all about, or so she tells herself. As head of the establishment, she keeps order with a strict discipline that easily crosses the boundary into sheer sadism. At this institution, hours in the laundry, complete silence, brown gunny-sack uniforms, meager rations and total isolation from the outside world are not enough to bring redemption. The regimen must be supplemented with whippings across the back of bare legs and for major—or not so major—infractions, a shearing of the head. For these young women, teenagers all, there is no trial, no appeal or no fixed sentence. They receive no wages for their labors. As the three newcomers find their way on the first morning, they pass a line of drawn, expressionless gray-haired women who apparently have spent their lives in this institution. Girls—and they are that, really—can be sent here because their parents find them troublesome, and there they remain until their family takes them back, an impossible situation for an orphan. For many it is a life sentence without chance of parole.
At the asylum, the three meet Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a sweet but simple young woman whose two-year-old son is brought to the drying-yard gate to exchange waves with his mother. She may not speak to him or to her sister, his stepmother, ever. Crispina attempts suicide on several occasions, but the other girls cover her secret to protect her from further punishment. When she reveals that she has been sexually abused by the priest-chaplain, she is transferred to solitary confinement in an insane asylum.
Two scenes smolder in the memory long after the film ends. One young girl screams like a wounded animal when her father brings her back after a runaway attempt. He throws the hysterical girl onto her dormitory bed, strikes her repeatedly and shrieks at the “whores” (or “hooers” as he calls them), who look on in horror. Sister Bridget assures him that she will take care of the matter, which means shearing her hair so that she will be ashamed to leave the premises again. Later in the story, when Bernadette resists the head-shaving, Sister Bridget completes her work with scissors, causing blood to run across the victim’s face and clot in her eyelashes. The torturer holds a mirror up to her swollen face and orders her to gaze at the ugliness of her sin.
And so on. This is not stuff for the squeamish. In his script, Peter Mullan has deliberately violated to good effect a fundamental principle of screenwriting by failing to provide any reasonable, likeable characters to provide contrast for the malice of the villains. He offers not one compassionate priest, nun or parent. They are all cruel, unfeeling, intolerant monsters, each of them. The film does not set out to indict individuals, but a system, an institution and ultimately the people who allowed such atrocities to survive for more than a century.
What makes the viewing particularly painful for Catholics, who may be excused for a sensitivity on these points after a continuous raking in the media during the past two years, is the way these partial truths presented in the film reinforce the worst of current anti-Catholic prejudices. The overarching story is that the Roman (note: “Roman” to underscore alien) Catholic Church is obsessed with preserving an outmoded, unnatural and destructive sexual ethic. The unspoken other side of the story is that secular opinion leaders are equally obsessed by gender issues as a test of modernity and tolerance. The diverse manifestations of this conflict of cultures fit neatly into a simplistic paradigm of good and evil, freedom and repression, health and neurosis: gay marriage, contraception, choice, divorce-and-remarriage, women priests, recreational sex. In each case, the church, we are told, proves itself reactionary in contrast to enlightened secular society. Celebrities at awards presentations can always draw ovations by making the politically acceptable statement on any of these points. They rarely speak of immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, capital punishment, trade unions, housing, bilingual education, foreign aid, redistribution of wealth and other issues on which the Catholic Church has staked out far more “progressive” positions than many of the Hollywood establishments.
“The Magdalene Sisters” plays up this sexual preoccupation. For the narrow-minded Irish people, in Peter Mullan’s mind, sexuality was—and for him may still be—the one unforgivable sin that demands a life of atonement. Parents see their daughters’ transgressions as their own failure and overcome the humiliation by disowning them. Their behavior fits the larger social pattern of intolerance. When the Magdalenes are paraded through a village on their way to a May devotion, guarded by both nuns and police, the townspeople look on them with bemusement and contempt. The sisters become the laity’s angels of vengeance, doing their dirty work for them, out of sight, out of mind, out of compassion.
For professional celibates, the morbid preoccupation with sins of the flesh provides a transparent veil for their own perversion. The priest takes advantage of an inmate. The nuns amuse themselves by lining up their charges and forcing them to jog in place stark naked, and then with a crudeness beyond belief, comparing their physical attributes. They save the most humiliating observations for Crispina, the most fragile, and then chide her for not being able to take a joke. The camera cuts between the tormented, debased women and a tight close-up of the leering porcine face of the nun in charge. For those who feel animosity toward church people for what they see as sexual hypocrisy, these scenes reinforce the prejudices they reinforced during the recent sex-abuse scandals.
I wanted to stand up in the theater and shout: It’s not like this! Many Irish families are loving. Most clergy and religious are compassionate. This is a sickness among a few! Where is the wider picture, the balance? But in the present climate among those critics who lack the experience and wisdom to place such horrors within a reasonable set of contexts, demurrer can be heard as denial and, as recent events have shown, denial is tantamount to a lie. Perhaps my reaction is similar to that of an Italian-American who has just had it with too many bad Godfather jokes. Yes, the Mafia has Italian roots, but Italians are about much more than crime.
Why did such things happen? For a number of reasons, I suppose. In Ireland, the government was happy to have social services provided on the cheap, so responsible authorities were reluctant to step in. Religious orders provided the personnel to run institutions; the arrangement provided a ministry for them in keeping with the charism of the community. It worked fairly well with schools, hospitals and to a certain extent orphanages, but getting involved with the penal system seems with the glaring wisdom of hindsight to have been a colossal blunder. One cruel distortion in the film is having Sister Bridget continually counting her money, as though she were working her charges to death to increase productivity and profits. It’s clear the nuns enjoyed few luxuries beyond jam on their bread during afternoon tea. More likely the paltry sum the government paid, if it paid anything, made the workhouse dependent on income from the laundry, and then, as now, superiors had to watch their budgets very carefully if they were to pay the bills.
Why did it last until an estimated 30,000 women had been committed to such places and until bodies discovered in unmarked graves brought the realization that something profoundly evil was going on? The last such workhouse closed in 1996. Peter Mullan argues that the Irish people, the Catholic Church, the families and the inmates themselves were trapped in their own insularity, just like the Taliban in the most inaccessible reaches of Afghanistan. That is the root of the problem. Lacking any mechanisms for self-criticism or for hearing criticism from the outside world, they merely accept their own version of their traditions as the way things were intended to be. One merely says, “Yes, Sister,” accepts the switch across the legs, swallows resentment and carries on, because that’s what God intended. How dare any one challenge God’s chosen emissaries?
Peter Mullan’s film is angry, harsh in its judgments, sensational to a fault, simplistic in its analysis and deliberately condemnatory. For Catholics, it is infuriating and humiliating. Perhaps that’s why we should see it.