The latest bolt of lightning to hit the sacristy is Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, a grim, faintly fictionalized examination of Catholic Ireland's infamous "Magdalene asylums." In what amounted to a program of forced labor, thousands of so-called fallen women were incarcerated -- sometimes for life -- for "moral crimes" that ranged from sassy back-talk to giving birth out of wedlock. First established in 1767 as a refuge for prostitutes, the asylums evolved in the twentieth century into a kind of church-sponsored, family-endorsed gulag, where the embattled inmates washed laundry seven days a week for exactly zero pay and the Sisters of Mercy tormented them with laws of silence, harangues about chastity and piety, beatings and sexual humiliation. Under increasing pressure, the last of these hellish institutions finally closed its doors in 1996.
Writer-director Mullan, who was raised Catholic in Scotland, is not the first muckraker to tackle this long-secret scandal. Singer Joni Mitchell recorded her outraged ode "Magdalene Laundries" in 1994, and in 1997 the disturbing British documentary Sex in a Cold Climate was released. In 1999, former nun Patricia Burke Brogan wrote a play, Eclipsed, about Ireland's "fallen women," and 60 Minutes soon jumped on the bandwagon. More may not be better in this case, but Mullan's dramatized account of three young women sent off to an asylum near Dublin in the 1960s is powerful stuff, if a bit plodding and schematic. It is likely the last word (the issue of reparations aside) on a long episode of cruelty enacted in the name of redemption.
The embattled inmates we meet here are fictional but archetypal. Raped by a drunk at a family wedding, delicate Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is foolish enough to speak up, and her shamed family quickly ships her off to oblivion. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) disturbs the public tranquility with an illegitimate child, who is quickly snatched from its mother's grasp while she's thrown in the clink. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) commits two crimes: She's an orphan, and she's just a bit too pretty for the schoolyard, which makes her a danger to herself and the leering boys nearby. The Taliban couldn't have come up with a more radical solution to her problems. Of the film's three heroines, screen newcomer Noone's Bernadette may be the most stirring, not least for the clear-eyed fury with which she comes to defy the absolute power of both the controlling regime and the sexual repression that fuels it.
Filmmaker Mullan (Orphans), who's also worked as an actor in cutting-edge dramas like Trainspotting and Riff-Raff, gives us not the photogenic Ireland of lilting song and magical myth that's been seen in some other recent films, but a barren, gray vision of a land in the grip of tyranny. To avoid growing Irish resistance to his movie, he actually shot it at an old convent in Dumfries, Scotland, but there's no mistaking his view of sanctimonious violence. His Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) is a starched reminder of every oppressive nun who ever smacked a schoolchild with a yardstick, and then some: She's Nurse Ratched in a habit, a twisted prison warden who believes in nothing so much as the corruption of men's souls. Meanwhile, the less said the better about the vile and deceitful Father Fitzroy (Daniel Costello), especially his relationship to a slow-witted asylum inmate named Crispina (Eileen Walsh). The population of the seminaries is sparse enough already.
In Sex in a Cold Climate, documentarian Steve Humphries interviewed survivors of the Magdalene Asylums to chilling effect and vividly chronicled the terrors they experienced. Mullan's fictionalized approach lacks some of Humphries's moral force, but that hasn't kept the church from condemning his work. Vatican officials denounced The Magdalene Sisters when it was released in Europe last year, and a spokesman for the U.S.-based Catholic League quickly defended the asylums as appropriate for the social standards of their day. Yes, and the Inquisition was deemed appropriate for the standards of its day.
Can reformers inside the Catholic Church weather the current storm and make the church relevant to new generations, or will the old guard that resists change at any cost keep fiddling while Rome burns? Peter Mullan raises the question once more in this blunt, heartfelt cry of outrage -- at the moment when it most urgently needs to be addressed.