“The Magdalene Sisters” takes place on 1964, the heels of the women’s liberation front where young women realized their sexuality and did so through protest, standing up for their rights, and burning their bras showing they wouldn’t be constricted sexually through man made products, yet here we visit a village in Ireland where women’s liberation hasn’t quite caught up. If anything “The Magdalene Sisters”, a well acted and very well directed film, analyzes the constriction of women in Ireland and how utterly one – dimensional their values were. It’s more of a film centered completely around ignorance and not only about religious ignorance, but social ignorance, and paranoia that the slightest thing will destroy the religious function and faith.
Not to mention an outlandish paranoia and religious hysteria that is not only ridiculous based on nothing but rash assumptions, but reflects how little religion has progressed, because nothing here that is shown has changed in this day and age, this is not long ago either, with only thirty years set in the past. Those who are compelled to watch this, upon first glance will deem this as a bashing of the Catholic religion, and will say this is a film that slurs the entire religion without any research, and it isn’t. As a devout Catholic, I found this to be horrible in the harsh content and violence, but very truthful in its documentation of a religion that use their followers as workers and keeps them in line by using their religion as an instrument of fear. What’s even more horrifying is we still cling to our belief system as do the workers and sisters here.
This is also about religious hypocrisy, a prison of masochistic people who appear as people of god, and, in a sick scene pretend to be a day camp as the head priest films activities that would never be conducted in this asylum. The asylum in question, the order of the sisters of Magdalene, takes in women rejected from society, their families, and their friends, girls who have committed “atrocities” both morally and in their families eyes and can not say anything to fight their being forced into the school. It is defined as “Girls who had become pregnant, even from rape, girls who were illegitimate, or orphaned, or just plain simple-minded, girls who were too pretty and therefore in “moral danger” all ran the risk of being locked up and put to work, without pay, in profit-making, convent laundries, to “wash away their sins.”
While it does have the guise of a school hell bent on reforming these young girls, it’s possibly a testament to the utter inhumanity we can muster up to people whom we look down on. The three girls we focus on here are ones that have seemingly done nothing wrong. The three girls whom the film focuses on whose stories are so separate but connect within the walls of the laundry, Margaret (Anne Marie Duff) is a doe-eyed young girl who is raped by her cousin at a family gathering and when she tells her aunt, she tells the men of the family and we witness the tables turn. Director Peter Mullan creates the most effective dramatic shot in the movie as Margaret sits in the corner crying at her cousin’s betrayal and she can do nothing but watch her family argue over the crime that has taken place.
We can not hear their voices, but we don’t need to, because the piercing look her father gives her from afar, almost as if she’s betrayed the family is all the sign we need to know that Margaret will not be given justice, then there is Bernadette, a very pretty young girl who, one day, is talking with a bunch of men in the yard of her orphanage. Though she never commits any sexual activity of any kind with them, her flirtatious behavior is all that is needed to make her an outcast. Though Bernadette vows she never touched them, a nun replies, “but you’d like to, wouldn’t you?” which is all that’s needed. An assumption based on paranoia. And then there’s Patricia, a young girl who had a baby during wed lock and is forced to give him up.
“The Magdalene Sisters” is very difficult to watch because their idea of a sin will seem purely outlandish to us, girls who give merely flirtatious behavior are deemed as sinners and outcasts. Though the laundry looks like a reform asylum, it is, in actuality a prison and a labor prison where the girls work for long hours in the heat for little pay, they’re subjected to back breaking behavior and can not question their duties because their religion is taken into account whenever they do, they’re deemed as whores and sinners whenever they question their duties or their purpose within the four walls. The most heartbreaking of the sub-plots is Crispina, a young mother who loves her children but was imprisoned within the asylum and every day must see her child in a distance from the back gates whom she can never touch.
What occurs within this prison is horrible as we witness the breaking down of the girls for the purpose of work and hard labor, it harms and scars much more than it heals, in fact it makes no effort in healing. What the nuns and priests do here is work the girls to the bone with hard labor that no human can manage; washing blood soaked clothing in scolding hot water, folding laundry, heaving large bags of clothing, and only being fed soup while the nuns eat gourmet food. And as a reminder of their “sins” they must read bible quotes during lunch. If they’re out of line, the nuns persist in breaking them down both emotionally and psychologically. They break them down psychologically by demeaning them and by mocking their bodies. In one particularly sick scene, a nun lines the girls up in the nude and begins mocking their bodies while the girls cry with nothing to do but stand and endure her abuse.
They also rob them of their dignity with menial grueling chores like hand washing clothes in really hot water, and by robbing them of their beauty like cutting their hair down to almost baldness. Scenes that were eerily similar to what the Nazis committed to break the Jewish slaves. The girls were even given numbers instead of names, again acts that are eerily reminiscent of the holocaust. Some of the nuns seem to take a sadomasochistic joy in mocking and destroying the dignity of the girls, and then lash out at the girls who question their methods. Geraldine McEwan is excellent as sister Bridget the evil and wicked head nun who is possibly the most violent of her convent.
What’s even more disturbing is the people of the villages think this type of cruel inhuman behavior will reform the poor girls, many of whom didn’t deserve this treatment, but their treatment only shows how certain religions balance minor atrocities with large atrocities just the same. Many of the girls rather than being given treatment or understanding are just used for back breaking labor that scars them for life. The ending is most disturbing exploring the fate of the real women, and Peter Mullan’s message comes across well. While this may offend many, watch this before making judgments towards the content. This is a disturbing, heartbreaking and gripping portrait of religious paranoia manifested through violence. Well acted, well directed, and well told, this is a story that will remain with you for days to come.