Thursday 16 February 2017

Cult Cinema #3: The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

It's 1964. County Dublin, Ireland. We are introduced to Margaret. She's a bridesmaid. A boy takes her upstairs to a room and there he rapes her, perfunctorily, deliberately, not in the heat of the moment, a premeditated brutality. She does what she's always been told to do, and tells someone. She is blamed. A few days later a priest comes in a black car and takes her away.

Bernadette lives in an orphanage. She is pretty, flirts with the boys who congregate on the other side of the railings of the orphanage yard. One day, her bed is empty. It remains so.

And Rose has just had a baby, although her parents will neither acknowledge the child's existence, nor even look at her. She's forced to give up her baby, and then they send her away.

All three of them arrive at the same day at the Magdalene Laundry, an institution managed by the Sisters of Mercy where "fallen women" are imprisoned, often for life and set to work washing clothing and bedding for convents, and orphanages, and prisons. For the next seven years, the three of them experience physical and psychological torment. They're beaten, humiliated, tormented. They're forbidden to create friendships. They're made to stand in a line while the nuns pass loud judgement on their breasts and arses. They have their heads shaved when they step out of line. They're encouraged to be cruel to each other, and then, seven years later they get out.

That's pretty much the plot of The Magdalene Sisters, actor-director Peter Mullan's best known and most controversial film.

Margaret, Rose and Bernadette are fictions. But what happened to them isn't, and here's where this gets sticky. The last Magdalene Laundry shut down in 1996 – during my adult life – and the survivors of the Laundries are still around, lots of them, with stories that make the horrendous abuses of the film look tame. The Irish government didn't admit its part in the management of the Laundries until 2013.

And cinema is tame, isn't it? Pictures on a screen are so often domesticated, and when they're supposed to be true, they're reined in even more. No film can do more than show a mediated image.

That said, The Magdalene Sisters is the sort of film that inspires fury. People who have faced the rough side of religion, they might see a film like this as a vehicle for their own anger. People who are in the mainstream of their religion, who find in it hope and solace, they're going to see an open attack on their faith.

I'm looking at films about cults, and I'm being deliberately vague about that, but one of my threads is the problem of abusive religion. The Magdalene Sisters is very specifically a film that demonstrates how mainstream religions can turn abusive too.

Catholic activists have found The Magdalene Sisters and the accounts that inspired it horribly offensive, but no one seems to be able to deny what happened in those places. The Catholic League's critique of the film and the various reports that describe what happened boils down to an attempt to get round it by trying to redefine what abuse is: these things happened, but we don't think that this stuff is actually abuse. They get in deep water very quickly, doubling down on a position that amounts to a bit of kicking and emotional torment being perfectly OK in moderation.

The thing the Catholic League's writer seems to be angriest about, though, is that there isn't a single sympathetic representative of the church portrayed in the film. Where are the compassionate nuns, they ask; where the decent priests?

Which misses the point of the film. The Magdalene Sisters is a cry of rage against a terrible thing that the institutional Catholic Church supported for decades. It's not about good nuns. It's not about decent priests. It's about the callous abusers. And having a bit where some nice guy church representatives step in and fix things misses the point, because they didn't.

And that's a difficult thing to get past. There are some awesome nuns out there – some years ago, for example, I was lucky enough to know one Sister Noreen Ryan, who was one of the most decent and compassionate people I've ever met. But there's this massive problem the Catholic Church has, and that's how inconsistently it behaves based upon its relationship to power.

And it boils down to this: the Catholic Church is at its best when it's operating in opposition to the structures of power. And it's at its very worst, the absolute pits, when it's in cahoots with those structures. This is a religious organisation whose members, without breaking any rule that would get them excommunicated, could offer unconditional support to the Franquista regime in Spain, and at roughly the same time also be so heavily involved in antifascist resistance in South America that an archbishop could be assassinated by a government death squad.

In Ireland in the sixties, the Catholic Church was very, very powerful, socially and politically. And this meant that Ireland's Magdalene Laundries – which were a thing that started in England and spread to more countries than just Ireland – to turn into something so toxic that thousands of lives could be ruined. Because no one had the authority to stop it happening.

One of the laziest arguments against religion is that religion as a phenomenon is bad because it makes all the bad things happen, which is stupid. People make bad stuff happen, and use ideologies to support what they were going to do anyway. It's a pretty easy argument to dismiss.

Or it is as long as no one mentions things like the Magdalene Laundry. Because it's pretty damn hard to think of a reason how the Magdalene Laundries could happen in the first place without there being a religious reason. The whole idea of the "fallen woman" and the legend of Mary Magdalene, the sex worker who gave up her life for Jesus (and protestants might say the legend of Mary Magdalene isn't in the Bible and needs to be ignored, but that's irrelevant because it's all tied up in the tradition), that's a religious idea. And the attitude to women, to sex and sexuality, that's Christianity's deepest and most systematic issue and anyone who wants to stick with the Christian faith with integrity needs to appreciate this and have some sort of response to it.
Margaret, Bernadette, Rose, on arrival.
I realise I haven't spoken so much about the actual film, but the fact is, I don't know what to say about it. It's good. It's grim. It is loaded with pain.

So there's this fourth girl, who's already there when Bernadette, Margaret and Rose (Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff and Dorothy Duffy respectively) arrive, and she's called Crispina (Eileen Walsh), and she has some sort of learning difficulty. Crispina's only possession is a small St Christopher medallion, which the nuns have allowed her to keep, since it is a devotional item. It's precious to her. Bernadette steals it, because she thinks Crispina shouldn't have any less reason to be miserable than the rest of them. The distress caused by this act of cruelty is more or less the first thing I'd show someone if they asked to see something raw.

Later, Rose discovers Crispina is being sexually abused by the priest. Outraged, before the open air Easter Sunday service, she washes the man's clothes with poison ivy, and right in the middle of communion he suddenly feels himself consumed with agony and unable to control himself, strips himself naked and runs off across the field, all covered with red welts, and for a second it's sort of funny and almost triumphant, but that's torn away because Crispina, who doesn't really get why it's weird, lifts her skirts and shows the nuns that she's got the same red welts all over her legs, and keeps telling them it hurts, and they're horrifically embarrassed, and then Crispina turns and yells at the retreating priest, "You are not a man of God!" over and over and over again, far beyond the point where you're capable of remaining comfortable watching it. It's amazing cinema, but it hurts to watch, and then next thing you know, Crispina is being packed off to a mental hospital and you know that it's a death sentence.

And it's painful in a way that the grimmest horror film could never be. Even the smallest triumphs, the smallest kindnesses are crushed.
The person most charged with crushing hopes is Sister Bridget, portrayed magnificently by the late Geraldine McEwan. She's horrendous, the most merciless a Sister of Mercy can get. Gratuitously, extravagantly cruel, she stops mid-beating to offer empty pieties at the death of a woman who spent a lifetime in the Laundry. When she allows the women a "special treat" it turns out it's her favourite movie, a shitty old black and white piece about nuns, and she's there crying for the women on screen and all the while unable to offer one speck of compassion for her charges, demonstrating with excruciating efficiency how empty sentimentality can be, and how easily it can be mistaken for compassion as she simpers over the policemen and priests whose bidding she does.

She cannot block the law, however. One of the girls finally gains a release thanks to her brother, now a young man, and although Bridget makes a childish attempt to block her exit, the girl appeals to a power beyond her: she kneels in the corridor and prays. And Bridget, powerless against this, gets out of her way.

It strikes me that The Magdalene Sisters isn't necessarily an indictment on belief. The inmates have their own beliefs or lack thereof and they find their own way through, but it aims its fury right at the heart of the Irish Catholic Church. For all of its power and anger though, The Magdalene Sisters holds back, allowing Rose, Margaret and Bernadette to escape. The truth is, while some girls did manage to escape, the majority never had that hope. Fictions escape with their youth and hopes intact. Hardly any of the real women imprisoned there did.