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The Magdalene Sisters

  The Magdalene Sisters
Can you believe they don't let this lovely lady have sex?

© 2002, Miramax
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Rose (Dorothy Duffy), Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) are three Irish girls growing up in the early 1960s who share a common flaw: they've sinned (either through out-of-wedlock pregnancies or by being a victim of rape) or have thought about sinning, much to the shame of their families. Abruptly sent to the Magdalene Sisterhood asylum, the three girls join scores of others as they repent for their allegedly sinful ways through forced laundry labor (enslavement, if you will), beatings, and brainwashing by the nuns, led by head sister, Bridget (Geraldine McEwan). Sent away without good reason, the girls try to understand how to survive the long years inside. Some turn to acceptance, others to rebellion, and the rest to escape, by fence-hopping or suicide.

Much like last year's "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Magdalene Sisters" (IMDb listing) is a true story account of a corner of history most audiences aren't aware of. The events have been fictionalized and the dramatics heightened for cinematic purposes, but the intense heat of reality is there, and "Magdalene" kicks down the doors and lets a little direct sunlight in on this chapter of disturbing Irish Catholic history.

"Magdalene" is the latest directorial effort from actor Peter Mullan, and it plays exactly as brutal as the actor's typical performances ("My Name Is Joe," "The Claim," "Miss Julie"). The forcefulness and violent behavior of the events onscreen often take a back seat to true understanding of the abuse that occurred at these houses, but that does nothing to dilute their power. To make his point even further, Mullan himself shows up for a cameo as one of the girls' unforgiving fathers, showing the rest of the film just what has made him such a compelling actor in recent years, and setting the bar pretty high for the method acting on display. Mullan doesn't flinch in dealing with the brutal torture, both mental and physical, that the young women endured. Nor does he paint a particularly flattering portrait of the Catholic Church, which makes the film even more of an achievement. Mullan clearly wants these horror stories to get out into the world, so that audiences and historians might understand the abuse of power that occurred.

My only real criticism of the picture is that it sets itself up as the tale of Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette, yet in the film's second act, the attention shifts to the saga of Crispina (Elieen Walsh), a mentally damaged single mother whose reservoir of Catholic guilt was exploited sexually by the resident priest stationed at the asylum. Mullan needs Crispina to explore the sexual nature of the abuse that took place, and she also represents the after-effects of the radical indoctrination that some of the girls succumbed to. But her story is presented at the expense of the other girls, and at the end of the picture Mullan's initial three points of view into this hell are compromised by this slight aside into another character. Vital as she is, Crispina's story blurs the focus of the film.

"The Magdalene Sisters" is sure to raise ire, and it should. Rare is it these days to find a filmmaker brave enough to take on an empire like the Catholic Church and question their unrepentant methods of madness. Mullan even saves the most horrifying truth for the final scroll: that these houses of slavery didn't even cease to exist until 1996. Even if you question the validity behind many of the arguments presented in the story, there is no denying the volcanic passion behind this often brilliant film.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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