Political Film Society - Newsletter #175 - August 10, 2003

August 10, 2003


The Magdalene SistersIreland once had a method for dealing with teenage girls who yielded to what the Catholic Church calls "temptation." As illustrated in details so graphic that they may compete with the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps for sadism, The Magdalene Sisters presents the method by which some 30,000 girls were so regimented and brainwashed that they were driven to madness or hardened in their hatred toward their captors. When the film begins, the year is 1964, and the place is Dublin. Margaret (played by Anne-Marie Duff) is at a wedding, where a cousin rapes her in a closet. One morning, while her brother watches, she is whisked off to the institution run by the Sisters of Mercy and other orders. The institution is named the Magdalene Asylum, since Catholic theology for some reason pretends that Mary Magdalene was a "sinner of the worst kind" who needed to suffer a lot before she could enter the gates of heaven. Next, Rose (played by Dorothy Duffy) is in a playground at an orphanage; five boys flirt with her, and she flirts briefly with them. Soon, Rose enters the same institution, which already has a Rose, so she is renamed Patricia. Meanwhile, Bernadette (played by Nora-Jane Noone) is in a hospital, where she has given birth out of wedlock to a beautiful baby. Her father arranges not only to have the baby adopted but also to send her to the same place as Margaret and Rose. Upon arrival, all three are escorted to meet Sister Bridget (played by Geraldine McEwan), the Mother Superior. After using a belt on a girl for trying to escape, she explains that they must obey all the rules or be punished. They are awakened at 6, have breakfast at 6:30, then work as slaves, washing and drying their clothes, bedsheets, and towels as well as keeping the floors and walls of the facility spic and span. Although the film focuses on the three, who sleep with two dozen or so others in Dormitory Four, most of the character development deals with Chrispina (played by Eileen Walsh), though all four characters are composites of actual victims. Chrispina, according to the story, was committed two years earlier for giving birth to a child out of wedlock but hangs onto a St. Christopher pendant as her one prized possession.

While hanging up clothes to dry in the yard, Chrispina receives occasional visits from her sister, who accompanies her son to wave outside a gate that looks into the yard, making her feel delighted each time. One day after the girls shower, while still in the nude, two nuns decide to play what they characterize as a game. Who has the smallest and biggest breasts? Who has the biggest bottom? Who has the most pubic hair? Chrispina finds the "game" humiliating, and that evening she wets her bedclothes, hoping to die from influenza. Although she recovers, her pendant has fallen off, and soon Chrispina tries to commit suicide. Later, during a ceremony, a priest strips off his clothes due to a bout of itching, since Margaret, to punish him for abusing an inmate, has put nettles in his clothes; as he stands naked, Chrispina repeatedly yells, "You are not a man of God." That night, two men escort Chrispina to a mental institution where in solitary confinement she eventually goes mad. One year later, Chrispina's sister and son arrive for another visit. Rose goes over to tell them that Chrispina has been transferred, whereupon she is thrashed severely by Mother Superior for the offense of talking with an outsider and told that the same thrashing will continue daily for a month. When Bernadette enters Mother Superior's office to inform her that an elderly nun has just died, she observes Rose receiving the punishment. Earlier, Margaret's brother has secured her release. Bernadette then convinces Rose that she must leave as soon as possible. Early the next morning, the two break out of the locked dormitory room, rummage for the key in Sister Bridget's office, threaten bodily harm to her if she will not give up the key, and they walk out to freedom, a scene that unfortunately is entirely fictional. The trailer of The Magdalene Sisters, directed and written by Peter Mullan, says that the escapees exposed the institution, which finally shut down in 1996, but alas that story is not told in the film, which clearly indicts Irish society for ignoring what happened to young girls who were incarcerated for offenses that were not their fault. The Vatican, which has recently told Catholic parliamentarians how to vote on a matter of morality, is not pleased with the film, which survivors say was less brutal than what actually occurred. For revealing in considerable depth the totalitarian system under which the girls suffered, the Political Film Society has nominated The Magdalene Sisters as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2003. MH