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Why fear hell when you're already there?
on 22 October 2003
Why fear hell when already there?
As if the Holy Roman Catholic Church hasn't had enough PR problems lately, now there's THE MAGDALENE SISTERS.
Based on a true story, this film follows the experiences of three young Irish woman thrust into a Magdalene Asylum, administered by the Catholic Church through the Sisters of Mercy (aka THE MAGDALENE SISTERS), for perceived sexual immorality. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who dares cry "rape" after she's sexually assaulted by a cousin at a family wedding. Rose, who gives birth to an illegitimate child. Bernadette, already in an orphanage, who's just an outrageous flirt with the lads. In the asylum, the three join others, some having been detained for a lifetime, in a brutal 24/7 regimen of prayer, work, and sleep without contact with the outside world. The work involved 8-10 hours per day of unpaid toil, i.e. atonement for sin, in the institution's sweat shop laundry - a business that earned considerable money for the Church. The prisoners - for that's what they truly are - endure bad food, physical beatings, sexual abuse, psychological trauma, and abject humiliation at the hands of the nuns and priests.
The Magdalene Asylums were a feature of 20th century Ireland, places of incarceration reserved for "fallen" women, a flexible term that included anyone considered to be in moral peril. The plot of this film takes place in the early 1960s and stretches over four to five years. (The last Irish asylum was closed in 1996. It's estimated that approximately 30,000 women were incarcerated in these facilities over the decades. Interestingly, it was the advent of household washers and dryers that contributed to the end of the asylum laundries.)
Have no misconceptions, the plot of this devastating and emotionally powerful film is unrelentingly gritty. There's little happiness to be had by the three young women, brilliantly played by the three named actresses, and their fellow sufferers. Also superb in a supporting role is Geraldine McEwan as Sister Bridget, the asylum's manic Mother Superior, who loves old western films and the laundry's cash revenue nearly as much as her God, and who apparently harbors a deep hatred of female sexuality. And Eileen Walsh as Crispina, another unwed mother, who barely comprehends her trespass, and whose fate is achingly tragic.
THE MAGDALENE SISTERS was filmed in Dumfries, Scotland, rather than Ireland to avoid political opposition and controversy. The shock to the viewer is that such institutionalized cruelty could have existed in a modern, Western society until so recently. After all, we're not talking about repression of women in the Taliban's Afghanistan here.
Writer/Director Peter Mullan included in the cast, as Sister Augusta, a woman named Phyllis McMahon, a former nun in a Magdalene Asylum. When asked by Mullen what went so wrong in the asylums that nuns did these things, she answered:
"Absence of doubt. We had no doubts about what we did." The rationale of fanatics everywhere.
I was born and raised a Catholic, and "fell away" in young adulthood. THE MAGDALENE SISTERS made me angry. Without doubt, it also merits Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Film category.