The Magdalene Sisters: The Perversion and Injustice of Human Nature

Article published on Oct. 30, 2002
community published
Article published on Oct. 30, 2002

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Should we continue to watch and see ourselves in the bloodstained eye of Bernadette, the most symbolic and poignant image of the film?

Peter Mullans controversial film, The Magdalene Sisters, won the Golden Lion at the 59th Venice Film Festival, he is a key figure in European cinema: first an actor, then writer, now director.

Mullan is already recognised for both his leading role in the 1998 film, My name is Joe directed by Ken Loach and for his excellent début as director of Orphans. In The Magdalene Sisters, Mullan brings together authentic evidence recounted by women who lived in Ireland during the early sixties. He pursues the truth through lucid images of chilling reality that, I believe, for most people is unknown.

Through the story of three girls, Mullans camera leads us inside Magdalenes walls, one of many religious institutions that existed in Ireland for more than a century.

Like thousands of other girls, Margaret, Rose and Bernadette suffer both physical and psychological violence to expiate their guilt and their sins because in the eyes of God, they are wayward women.

They have all committed different crimes; Margaret was raped during celebrations after a family wedding; Rose gave birth to an illegitimate child, who was immediately taken away from her; finally, and perhaps the most absurd, Bernadette was too friendly to the young boys outside her orphanage gates.

These institutions really did become industrial laundries, where girls were forced to work in silence 365 days a year. They worked in this way until they suffered from exhaustion, and some weaker girls even became insane. The Catholic Church, helped by the blindness and silence of well-to-do Bourgeois families, made these places instruments of power from which they received great financial benefits.

Through sequences of crude and angry images emerges the directors anger against the Catholic Church, perhaps he wants them to acknowledge their guilt. It is a film that reveals the weakness, the perversion and injustice of human nature that has no limits, sparing no one, not even Gods direct apostles.

It is a difficult film to watch from beginning to end, however, this is Mullans great talent: he makes the spectator share this overwhelming and evil reality, making us feel the same torment, the same helplessness mixed with disbelief and the same desire for justice. The film has caused many outcries against the Magdalene Institutions. The strongest of all is the fact that an ex-nun actually chose to take on the role of a woman imprisoned in the institution for more than 40 years, who by this point had become incapable of expressing any feeling towards anyone. A further quality of the film is that rarely have actors actually experienced the stories they interpret, this is yet another element that makes the film truly exceptional. The actress recounts that she ended up in one of these horrific institutions at the age of 17, after having taken her vows, without knowing the type of work she would have to do. At 22 she decided to renounce her vows as she felt destroyed by this experience. She is still a practising Catholic today; however the traces from these dark years are still evident on her face. The directors immediate goal is against religion because of the cruelty it exerts on innocent people in the name of an exasperated morality, of a morbid fear of the female body or more simply, in the name of money.

An even stronger goal, perhaps less obvious, is to show the mental narrow-mindedness of people and institutions, their intolerance and fear of change in the world that is continually evolving both culturally and socially. This convincing film merits the award, as it breaks the silence of a horror that was kept in the dark for too long.

Should we continue to watch and see ourselves in the bloodstained eye of Bernadette, the most symbolic and poignant image of the film. This gaze will not let us forget that institutions similar to Magdalene only finished six years ago, in 1996.