The history of the Catholic church in the last century is one of both triumph and failure. Its triumphs include Vatican II’s modernization of the church, its role in resisting communism and its deep commitment to seeking peace and helping the poor. But lately, its failures have been broadly displayed. In America, of course, the focus has been on the disturbing cases of pedophilia among priests. And now director Peter Mullan's new movie attempts to expose the horrific conditions suffered by thousands of Irish women.
The Magdalene Sisters is a powerful look at the Magdalene convents to which wayward young women were sent, sometimes for the sin of promiscuity, sometimes simply because they were too flirty. There they were expected to devote themselves to their spiritual redemption, as well as work in the laundries that were a staple of the order.
The film focuses on three women, who all arrive on the same day. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is sent to the convent after a cousin rapes her at a wedding. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) lives in an orphanage until she gets too fresh with the local boys. And Rose (Dorothy Duff) has just given birth to an out-of-wedlock son. All three arrive at the convent and are confronted by the truly terrifying Sister Bridget, who takes delight in taunting the girls, cutting off their hair and promising both temporal and eternal retribution if they disobey her capricious orders. The other nuns who run the convent are little better. In one disturbing scene, they force the young women to strip and then hold a contest to see which girl has the smallest breasts, the most body hair. I found myself averting my eyes in pain.
Which of course is Mullan's point. He wants to shock and outrage his audience, and let us know what happened to over 30,000 women. The Magdalene Sisters begins and ends with a list of names, similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., clearly implying that the film has provided only a glimpse of the many whose lives were destroyed. Unfortunately Mullan gets carried away. The movie is so relentless and so bitter in its denunciations that it loses focus. It forgets that not every nun was a veritable spawn of Satan, that not every priest molested young women in his rectory. And by giving in to its passionate diatribe against the Church, the film undermines its own authority. A more level-headed, more balanced portrayal would have been just as compelling and much more convincing.
Still, the film is undeniably powerful, with three strong portrayals from its leads. Peter Mullan, a fine actor himself, knows how to elicit breathtakingly strong performances. Eileen Walsh, portraying a girl whose simple faith leads her down a road to madness, is especially compelling. When she starts screaming, "You're not a man of God," I thought the ceiling was going to cave in. Maybe that was Mullan's intention.