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"The Magdalene Sisters" is not, as some have claimed, a one-dimensional
anti-Catholic film exploiting what are arguably especially gruesome
atrocities. It is a fact-based drama about three teenage girls who found
themselves in 1964 sentenced to work in a laundry run by an Irish religious
order for an indefinite term and under conditions that made most audience
In three brief vignettes before the main title, the girls are introduced. One is brutally raped by a cousin at a wedding while priests perform traditional Irish songs. Immediately telling a woman, instead of support she becomes the subject of a hasty conspiracy to spirit the rapist from the wedding and to place her in the Magdalene asylum.
A second girl gives birth to a baby - in the not long ago past, illegitimacy was the label. She is pressured by a priest to surrender the baby boy and then she, too, is hustled off to the asylum.
The third victim is in an orphanage where she gets under the director's skin for no other offense than she is pretty and boys from the neighborhood crowd a fence to call down to her. Transfer to the asylum follows.
The Magdalene laundries made money for the order running them and the asylum to which the three girls were committed is, in this film, a moral charnel house. Sister Bridget, the head nun, interviews the girls while fingering, with almost erotic delight, rolls of money. Her desk sports a photo of President Kennedy but a picture of Ilse Koch would have been a more suitable iconographic representation of her character. She is a sadist, first class.
What follows is almost unrelieved tedium for the girls interspersed with brutal physical chastisement and agonizing sexual humiliation inflicted by perverted nuns. Sexual orientation isn't my issue, it's the awful victimization of helpless young girls.
Through the fine acting of the cast the complexity of relationships and the nature of choices become engrossing. To accommodate or to resist. To comply or to engage in sabotage, even in small ways as a declaration of non-surrender. Sabotage is possible but can an inexperienced and angry teen foresee the consequences of a minor act of resistance? An anticipated humorous defiance may well have tragic results.
The film centers on the three girls as well as several other asylum inmates ranging from a young woman descending slowly into irreversible madness and an elderly crone who believes her lifetime of servitude guarantees entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven. This tortured soul is the nuns' "capo," the inmate without whose help the asylum's strictures can't be enforced. Comparison to the Gulag camps and the Nazi concentration camps is apropos.
"The Magdalene Sisters" doesn't portray all the girls as angels but it does show the nuns and the occasional male clergy as evil exploiters and sadistic hypocrites. Is that fair? The end credits report that some 30,000 women were involuntarily placed in Magdalene asylums until the last one closed in 1996. Were all inmates so tortured and beaten? I don't know but these three girls certainly have had THEIR experience recorded for a population that appears to have turned a blind eye to what should have been a national scandal decades earlier. Their life after the asylum is reported in the end credits. All paid a price for a stolen adolescence.
The asylum in this film is pure evil, religious doctrine run amuck in the quest for money through cheap labor and in the riotous unleashing of perversity. English judges for centuries have often used a word rarely found in American case law to describe persons and events: the word is wicked. This film projects an unending parade of wicked people performing wicked acts. It doesn't condemn Catholicism, it indicts the operation by the church in Ireland of one type of soul and body destroying evil. The Church can no more defend the Magdalene asylums than it can the predatory pedophiles in the priesthood. That's the simple reality.
Audience members loudly gasped and a number cried during the showing. This isn't a film for the fainthearted or those who want their illusions about a bucolic and verdant Ireland filled with dancing and music unaffected by the reality of a genuine tragedy now coming to light.
I inadvertently found myself watching a whole string of movies the
other day about people being tortured or torturing themselves, without
even looking for movies like that. I saw The Magdalene Sisters, Osama,
and that IMAX film Everest, all in the same day, and was surprised at
their similarities, particularly between the first two. The Magdalene
Sisters and Osama are strikingly similar in that they are both about
religious terrorism, specifically centered around women. Osama was a
look at how the Taliban keeps women under tight control, not allowing
them even the tiniest freedom (indeed, women could be arrested and
severely punished for such crimes as walking alone in public or
speaking to a man, even for such dangerous statements as, 'My father is
sick.'), while The Magdalene Sisters is about the Catholic Church in
Ireland in disturbingly recent times, severely punishing women as a
result of what appears to be the Church's frothing and highly
irrational fear of sex.
The film focuses on the plights of three women in particular, who have all committed 'crimes' of varying nature but who are all punished by being sent to the Magdalene laundry for an indefinite period of time. One girl, Rose, commits the greatest crime having a child out of wedlock, which neither of her parents will even look at. Interestingly, she had the child because an abortion would have been a sin. Bernadette makes the mortal mistake of flirting with boys outside the orphanage she lived in, and Margaret is raped at a family gathering by a cousin, only to be shipped off herself when she reports it to family members.
At the Magdalene laundry, the girls are subjected to psychological abuse and endless physical toil, all under the old theory that it will cleanse their souls. Some of the women that the three girls in question encounter as they enter the laundry have been there for decades, and they eventually figure out that the only way that they are ever going to get out of there is to escape. Bernadette is especially aware of this, and makes increasing efforts to escape, for which she is brutally punished.
I am genuinely curious to know what path of logic leads people to believe that such practices in the name of religion can have any beneficial value. The Taliban has taken religious torture to its extreme, debasing themselves and their religion by performing unbelievably inhuman acts in the name of their God, and it appears that, while certainly not on the same level of cruelty, the Catholic Church has performed similar crimes against humanity. That the Catholic Church in Ireland promptly condemned the film is not surprising, but if such things are being committed under its name (and indeed continued being committed well into the late 1990s), I should think that the Church would at least allow the film to be shown so that people would be aware of such abuses, which tarnish the reputation of the Church. I believe that it would have been possible for the Church to defend its own validity while at the same time acknowledging abuses committed in its name, especially if the accusations of cruelty were untrue, although in this case they were not. Running, however, only makes you look guilty.
The Magdalene laundry is presided over by a nun who is simply evil. She is an elderly lady and generally soft-spoken, but this woman makes the wicked witch of the west look like a prancing schoolgirl. The viciousness of the rest of the Sisters of Mercy radiates off of this woman like some kind of sinister force, delicately but successfully walking the line between illustrating the harshness of a brutal religious regime and creating a movie monster. Her character is human, but she's not far from being a monster.
It's disheartening to see the things that people do in the name of religion, especially when the crimes are something as little as behaving like a normal person. There are natural and perfectly healthy behaviors that unfortunately are violations of arbitrary religious laws, which are subsequently punished with outlandish punishments like those seen in this movie. Religion is thrown into reverse, causing pain and suffering rather than offering an escape from it, shown in a modern setting that is so backwards that it could just as easily have taken place in the 1600s.
Their idea of problem solving was more based on the Marque de Sade's idea of
fun. If you are in the mood for sadism and horror...this is the film for
I could not imagine that such a place as the laundry run by The Order of Magdelene Sisters could exist until I saw this film. The four girls that the story focused on Rose, Bernadette, Margaret and Crispina existed. I have been to Ireland and seen the beauty of that country. I once envied the life of those lucky enough to live there. I don't any longer.
The movie does not attack the Catholic faith so much as give a mindset of the 1960's in Ireland. My word here in the USA hippies were making love not war and these poor girls were only being human beings. I don't like to share the details of a film, but consider that one girl was an orphan and sent to the Magdelene's because she liked to flirt!! One was sent because she was raped!! My goodness, how barbaric can people be? film. And these people were nuns and priests for heaven's sake. Ah and let me not forget the parents who sent their daughters to that place. I will never complain about my parents again. Promise.
Please watch this film.
I would give this film 20 out of 10! Excellent acting, nimble direction
and very well crafted representations of real-historical events and
persons. Eileen Walsh should get a special award for an incredible
performance as Crispina - Eileen, you are fantastic! I look forward to
more from you! What shook me was the realization that this movie
captured the interplay of Dickensian exploitation interwoven with the
fascistic barbarity of the church. The laundry was a slave-plantation
par excellence as it ground its physically, sexually and emotionally
exploited slaves within an atmosphere of sheer terror and self-hatred -
we deserve what we get because we are guilty - shame on us - this is
what the masters of every plantation on this planet sought to instill
What I would have liked to see developed further was how this laundry-plantation fit within the wider Irish society - whose clothes were being washed, and what was their relationship to the people who were incarcerated here? Religion's role in the sheer brutalization of its adherents has been evidenced throughout history - no mass religion has brought anything other than terror, subjugation and self-hatred to women - this film proves it beyond doubt! As men, we are beneficiaries of such brutalities to women - and we are like Margaret's brother - who sheepishly mutters some nonsense about waiting to grow up while his sister lived in hell. What pained me most in this film was the terrible scene of uniformed men dragging Crispina out of the dormitory - to her destruction - and here the most painful part was noting that none of the women could shake off their terror to help their sister who cried for help. The scene captured in a brutal moment, the truth that tyranny can only thrive with our collective fear. Religion like other totalitarian ideologies rules by internalized terror.
Enough, go on and watch this movie, its worth every tear you shed, because in the end, you will find that being disturbed makes you recognize the suffering of every Crispina, Margaret, Rose, Bernadette among us.
This film will move you that is for sure. It is amazing to think such
atrocities went on in the name of God. Well I guess it isn't really but
this film lets you experience the single mindedness and hypocrisies of
people who hold such fanatical beliefs. The film takes you on a journey
through the eyes of helpless young women. These women are victims of
the church and all its cruelty. We see how their spirits are affected
by such unjust behavior. You will feel and cry along with them. You
will hope along with them. It is amazing that anyone in these kind of
circumstances could ever find any hope.
Peter Mullan had done a superb job at writing and directing. He even plays a small part in the film.
The script is very well structured. It builds it dramatic tension nicely. The performances all round are very strong.
I am sure you will enjoy this outstanding drama.
Peter Mullan's (2002) film is based primarily upon the TV documentary
'Sex in a Cold Climate' by Steve Humphries which was first aired on RTE
(Ireland) and BBC (England) in 1998. The documentary records the
recollections of four Irish women who spent their youth and a good
proportion of their adult lives as involuntary guests of uncompromising
Roman Catholic nuns.
The film is set in a particular example of this institution which, somewhat akin to the English workhouses of the late 19th and early 20th century, became established in Ireland after the Second World War. The Magdelene Laundries took their name from the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, a 'fallen woman' whom Christ befriended.
We join the main heroines of the movie - Margarette (Anne-Marie Duff), Bernadette (Norah-Jane No one), Rose (Dorothy Duffy) and Crispina (Eileen Walsh) in cameo as their entrance scholarships for the Magdelene Laundry are being sat.
What's most uncomfortable about this part of the movie, is trying to work out what's going on. Trying to work out what it is that's being whispered and what will be the upshot of it, and why. At first, it seems like the soundtrack of the film and the contrast have failed. But before long, it becomes obvious that the soundtrack of the film and the contrast have succeeded. The dark and deafening silence surrounding the circumstances under which these young women are being consigned to the unwelcome stewardship of the Magdalene Sisters comes through loud and muted.
We follow their induction into the laundry by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), ably assisted by the Sisters Jude (Frances Healy), Clemantine (Eithne McGuinness) and Augusta (Phyllis MacMahon) who contrive with formally celibate gentlemen like Father Fitzroy (Daniel Costello) to represent a world in which God's greatest ideal is achieved through punishment and penitence.
As the film progresses, we begin to understand why it is no accident that these institutions should have been laundries. They could - after all - have been bakeries, dairies, canneries or places where mailbags are sewn.
With every garment that passes through the process, unmentionable filth is cleansed - if the Sisters are to be believed. And if the Sisters are to be believed, the sins of the teenagers and the route to Heaven is bound up in hot water, salt and flagellation.
And as we follow these unsaintly girls on their hapless journey, we finally learn that salvation is as straightforward as a letter we are not privileged to read and a brother who arrives with a suitcase - as if there is anything that anybody could possibly want to carry away from a place like this.
This film is a powerful elegy to the suffering of these unfortunate girls who, constrained to silence for so long, have finally found a voice.
The Magdalene Sisters is one of the better movies of the year. It holds
within it such emotional girth, such a sympathy with these girls and
what they go through in such a society that holds the Catholic belief
system as the absolute truth, that by the time you leave the theater,
like it or dis-like it, you'll feel drained. Along with a
heart-wrenching relentlessness by writer/director Peter Mullan in
revealing the details of the nun's cruelty and coldness, there are a
number of very good performances here. Geraldine McEwan's Sister
Bridget, head Sister of the Magdalene reformatory, is on par with Nurse
Ratched for being one of the most frightening of dominating female
figures; Eileen Walsh's Crispina/Harriet is possibly the most touching
of the lot of imprisoned women and could garner an Oscar nomination;
Nora-Jane No one's Bernadette is a true balancing act between rebellious
spirit and trapped creature; and the other players, including
Anne-Marrie Duff and Dorothy Duffy add splendid supporting work.
As fellow film connoisseurs know, Ingmar Bergman was renown for most of his films dealing with faith, the loss of it, and/or the absence of God and the pain that seeps through in living in such a world that doesn't question it. While these questions weren't as forward and evident in this film as they were in Bergman's masterpieces, often Mullan subtly brings these questions to light as the film progresses: if God is pounded over and over and over into these girl's heads, that they are here because they need to repent for their "mortal sins" (such as being raped, flirting, having children out of wedlock), and they are subjected to physical, sexual, and mental abuse by those who should be compassionate, life-long devotees to the faith, where is God? This question actually comes to a big head in a scene that at first shows itself to be rather amusing when a priest gets a poison Ivy rash, and then Crispina, who got it from him in the worst way, shouts out over and over 'YOU ARE NOT A MAN OF GOD!', and thus is silenced away to a mental asylum. Indeed, this is the part of the film where the question gets the most light, and it's the most harrowing scene in the movie among others and is one of the most powerful in movies this year.
The only liability is the climatic ending to which is something against a Bergman=esque logic, and while I won't reveal it here, it tends to go to an (appropriate) timing that's akin to Cuckoo's Nest. Personally, I felt the film should have ended with the Bergman logic instead of the Kesey spirit, but that's neither here nor there, since the bulk of the film in and of itself is contains some passionate drama, and to those who see it will not only get an eye-opening view to the old-time (if old-time is up until seven years ago) Catholic ways, but also to the great dangers of control over human life.
'The Magdalene Sisters' would be a preposterous story, were it not factual. The actual names and circumstances appear to have been changed for the screenplay, but the original 50-minute documentary, filmed likely in the mid 1990s, tells us that everything, and more, happened to these children, virtually imprisoned for such things as having a child out of wedlock, or being sexually assaulted, or simply happening to look pretty. With no way out, they were forced to work long hours for no pay, operating the Magdalene Sisters' commercial laundry business, the last one until 1996. As one character, the old nun, explains, a strong Ireland requires that its men remain strong, so we have to remove temptation. The critic Ebert has a complete review. The only relevant "extra" on the DVD is the documentary, which features old photos and film, plus remarkable interviews with ladies who had been in a Magdalene Sisters asylum in the 1940s through the 1960s, including the three ladies around whom the movie's three main characters were built. A very gripping movie, well-acted.
I saw this movie two weeks ago. Like the Irish, here in Quebec, we were
manipulated by catholic religion, before the revolution tranquille. This
story of the laudries is similar here, with the story of les enfants de
Duplessis. They putted young infants in mental institute and maltraited
The movie was pretty good. It show well the mentaly of the era and how hypocrite the society is. The dark, horrible atmosphear in this laundrie is well show and the actress were awesome. This is not an anti religious movie and they dont put too much to make us cry. Just show the brutal facts that happened. Its a good balanced critic of society.
Though this film is horrific, and portrays Catholics to be cruel and
sadistic, I would just like to say , please don't think all Catholics
are like that. I am Catholic, and proud to be one, yet I still believe
everything that happened in this film was wrong.
This film is of tremendous quality and I recommend it to everyone, even those who may be disgusted by what they see. It is the kind of film that goes straight to the heart, and yes it made me ashamed to be a Catholic for a period of time, I hope that anyone who sees this film will not despise the Catholic Church. Each character, each scene was done so realistically, it will make all who see it fill with empathy for those girls, I even think that the nuns who ran these asylums would be shocked at what they actually did, if they were living in these times. It reminds me, in a way of the film Schindlers List, the way the nuns inspected the girls bodies and laughed about them, both the Holocaust and these asylums were apparently doing what was right yet causing great pain and suffering at the same time. Watch this film, it is definitely worth it.
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