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Make no mistake about it, writer/director Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters” is no upbeat show-biz bio showcasing a sister act of crooners once cooed over on the Lawrence Welk show. These are not the Lennon Sisters. Nor do they bear any resemblance to the long-in-the tooth girl-power shenanigans of “The Banger Sisters,” despite that name’s inadvertent connotation of sexual aggressiveness.

On the contrary, the film’s eponymous order of nuns is more akin to a coven of witches, so demonically unmerciful is their Machiavellian method of forced atonement upon a prison-population of purported “fallen” girls.

The Flaying Nuns

Salvation consists not simply of prayer and reflection, but of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse
Salvation consists not simply of prayer and reflection, but of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse

Hard labor meets hard water in the Magdalene Sisters’ church-run laundries, were evil supervises salvation in a ritual of perpetual unpaid work and degradation. Purification requires industrial-strength defilement to be 100% effective.

The film’s epilogue (epitaph) states: “More than 30,000 young women have been detained at Magdalene asylums through Ireland. The last laundry closed in 1996.” The injustice is stultifying, and one is astonished that such a sickening tradition of violence and spiritual mutilation could have persisted with impunity for so long. Mel Gibson’s epic ketchup-on-the-cross passion play fairly pales in comparison to the gruesome Oberamergau so gleefully performed by the nuns in this trauma based on a true story.

Set in County Dublin, Ireland in 1964, these wayward “dirty” girls are abandoned, beaten, and shunned by family and community alike for their perceived sins, then whisked off to the Magdalene Sisters’ penitentiary of penitence to serve a term of indefinite servitude. Once inside, the systematized scenario of salvation consists not simply of quiet prayer and reflection, but of a rigorous regimen of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse. Genuflecting is more than just a posture for kneeling in prayer, and a tiny wafer isn’t always the only thing swallowed during Holy Communion. Many of these incarcerated souls expire before expiation is complete, never to be seen or heard from again. Into the abbey. Into the abyss.

The unsentimental cast of “Love Boat” castaways assembles your standard cross-section of character types to edifying effect:

  • Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is blessed with broad, angular features, but lives on the straight and narrow. Her first sin was rebuffing the reputation-tarnishing advances of her cousin, who then raped her at a church social. The second was confiding the incident to a friend. Confession doesn’t always confer absolution; in this case it’ll get you into hot holy water. As soon as Margaret’s secret is out of the bag, she’s sacked, abducted, and left to rot in a man-made Hell.
  • The song of Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is one of lamentation. Though a technical virgin, this skillfully seductive orphan is a fleshy flirt. Her sultry, Elvis-like pout makes her a real jailhouse cock tease, and the schoolboys lap her up. In the swish of a hip, she’s detained for provoking temptation.
  • Rose (Dorothy Duffy), silky and serene, has been deflowered outside the bondage of holy matrimony. After her illegitimate child has been plucked from her arms and placed in a coerced adoption, it’s off to the dungeon.
  • Saddest of all is devout Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a brittle, homely girl whose sister is raising her fatherless son. Although her sister and son try to visit, they can only be glimpsed behind iron gates while the girls hang the laundry out to dry. All outside communication is forbidden and punished with the utmost severity.

Full Metal Habit

Lording over these lost laundresses is Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), the mother of all superiors. She’s a real battle-axe with the Ajax, and makes damn sure those sullied girls scrub out every last spot of soil, dirt, and blood until their very souls are as clean as the linens. There’s Hell to pay for dirty knickers.

The new inductees to the hall of shame first encounter Sister Bridget when they’re marched in review before her for inspection. One by one, each girl gets a taste of boot-camp scrutiny from the Drill Sergeant. Sister Bridget gives them the once-over, tearing them down and sizing them up with succinct severity: Whore. Temptress. Simpleton. Then, while counting up the profits from the laundry’s dirty business, she sermonizes:

“The philosophy here at Magdalene is a simple one. Through the powers of prayer, cleanliness and hard work, the fallen may find their way back to Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior.”

Pity that so few of them will ever find their way out.

Do as I Pray, Not as I Do

The supplicating convicts are held to a far higher standard than the nuns who enforce it. Deprivation nourishes the soul. Reciting mass in mess hall while they eat, the girls have no choice but to choke down a grayish lump of gruel that passes for their daily bread. Meanwhile, the Magdalene Sisters stuff their fat faces on a feast fit for the King of Kings. A latticework screen separates the two groups, providing privacy and a good spot to spy for the power-hungry nuns. Gluttony is only a sin for the starving.

Twisted Sisters

The most shocking scene of sado-masochistic salvation takes place in the showers. Naked and dripping wet, the girls stand in formation for a different sort of inspection. Like a perverse beauty pageant, the denuded adolescents are viciously dissected and cut down by the presiding nuns who compare them according to their physical attributes and peculiarities. Winners are chosen from a variety of categories, such as smallest breasts, largest bottoms, and points in between. The violation is profound. Cruelty itself is stripped bare here, exposing the sisters’ penchant for not-so-funny games of lascivious ridicule.

While lust may be a sin for the condemned convicts, it’s a veritable virtue to behold in the sisters who indulge in it for the sake of humiliating humility. Not since Pasolini’s “120 Days of Sodom” has such a catalogue of grim degradation been put onscreen. The brutalities depicted in both films differ only in the degree of sympathy they inspire for the victims and the duration of their tribulations. The Pasolini film observes its tortures with a callous, abject objectivity within a finite span of four months. Peter Mullan’s movie, on the other hand, inspires enraged compassion for its trampled souls, whose term of penance is indefinite, and therefore eternal.

Sympathy for the Bedeviled

Sympathy serves narration as well. When Bernadette and Rose take vows to break out of the big house, that same sympathy engenders suspense. “Caged Heat” and “Escape From Alcatraz” melt together, as “The Magdalene Sisters” forges ahead like a girls-behind-bars bust out caper. If it weren’t for the compelling excitement of escape, the open-ended damnation would be unbearable to watch.

“I’d commit any sin, mortal or otherwise, to get the hell out of here.”
—Nora-Jane Noone as Bernadette

Indeed, this congregation of various film genres serves to mitigate the story’s scandalous depiction of injustice and perverse religious fervor. True events are transubstantiated into such dramatic forms as the personal memoir, muckraking expose, social satire, and biblical slasher flick. This does not imply, however, that the narrative events are allegorical in any way. The hierarchical depravity and horrors on display do not hint at some other, disguised truth. On the contrary, this unflinching look at religious infamy is nailed firmly to a sanctified tradition of the questionable moral imperative to deliver us from sin. The cruelties inflicted before our very eyes are metaphors for themselves. What you see is what you’ve got coming.

Yet the cinema itself can also bear false witness. In a rare moment of unleavened levity, Sister Bridget confesses her love of the movies to the girls, who have been assembled on Christmas Day for a rare treat: Sister Bridget has arranged a screening of “The Bells of Saint Mary’s.” Sister Bridget and (most of) the girls watch transfixed as a Max Factor close-up of Ingrid Bergman flickers before them in an apotheosis of glycerin-induced rapture. (Them bells ring hollow when one considers that Ingrid Bergman herself was cast out of Hollywood on the tramped-up morals charge of consorting with director Roberto Rossellini while still married to another man).

Speaking of close-ups, “The Magdalene Sisters” achieves its most truthful moments with the aid of this very device. Each of the main players is framed in close-up at a pivotal point in the drama. As in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc,” the human face becomes pre-eminent, banishing all other physical details or events beyond the unseen borders of the screen. Suffering, transcendence, and grace take physical form as icons of the soul. Even Sister Bridget succumbs to the camera’s unyielding magnification, which betrays ever so slightly the dying embers of remorse from behind her callous eyes. Lost forever is any hope of recovering the innocence and purity that she so savagely struck down in the spirits of her flock of sacrificial lambs.

The wonderful, horrible saga of “The Magdalene Sisters” is a triumph of determination and despair, admiration and sure-fire damnation. The church takes in dirty laundry. This film airs it out.

Picture and Sound

The picture quality, while more than adequate, is slightly murky, particularly in those scenes that are darkly lit. Ironically, that very graininess compliments, rather than detracts from “The Magdalene Sisters,” whose story could have been ripped straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm.

The sound is quite clear, spacious, and resonant. Perfect, even, if you prefer to listen to the crack of leather belts and anguished cries as they ricochet around your home theatre system in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

DVD Extras

Talk about a mood-killer. A 50-minute British TV documentary produced by Steve Humphries, “Sex In a Cold Climate,” interviews four women who give unflinching accounts of their incarceration and treatment in the Magdalene asylums. All so-called entertainment value has been shorn completely from the project; the women, now all quite old, recount their mistreatment with heartbreaking, raw candor. This film complements and intensifies the thrust of “The Magdalene Sisters.” The unthinkable is anchored by the weight of these devastating personal testimonies.

There is also a series of four animated public service spots touching on the topics of (physical) abuse, alcoholism, anorexia, and self-esteem, narrated by Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Lopez, respectively.

The DVD also features the theatrical trailer.