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Movie Review: The Magdalene Sisters

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The Magdalene Sisters is a 2002 Irish movie written and directed by Peter Mullan. It's based on true stories about the horrific experiences of women who were banished for life to the Magdalene Laundries for having sex without the benefit of marriage. The Magdalene Laundries were established and run by Roman Catholic nuns throughout Ireland, and they operated for 150 years. It's estimated that 30,000 women were laundry inmates during this time period. They experienced a life of hard labor, total silence, prayer, beatings, cruelty, and humiliations of every kind.

The basic idea, of course, is that unmarried sex is a grievous sin against God that leads to everlasting hell if not atoned. The name of the laundry is derived from the Biblical character, Mary Magdalene, who was thought to have been a prostitute before learning another way to live through her devotion to Jesus. Since Mary Magdalene was a reformed sinner of the worst kind, she is used as a role model for successful redemption. Originally, the laundry's mission was to reform prostitutes. Over time, however, the mission evolved to incorporate all unmarried sexual activity, including abused or developmentally challenged girls who were raped.

Set in the 1960s in County Dublin, The Magdalene Sisters is told from the perspective of Sister Bridgett, the head nun in charge of the laundry, and from three young women who arrive there on the same day: Margaret, Bernadette, and Rose. Margaret was raped by her cousin at a family wedding and was immediately sent to the laundry by her family. Bernadette, an orphan, was sent to the laundry for being beautiful and for flirting with boys. And Rose was sent to the laundry by her parents right after giving birth to an illegitimate baby boy, which was taken from her by a priest.

This is the welcome the three women received at the laundry:

"The philosophy here is very simple," says Sister Bridgett. "Through the power of prayers, cleanliness and hard work, the fallen can find their way back to Jesus Christ, our lord and savior…"

Salvation comes only by paying penance for sins, denying yourself all pleasures of the flesh, including food and sleep, and working beyond human endurance so that you might offer up your soul to redeem yourself and save yourself from eternal damnation.

The nuns did God's important work of using every earthly means available to cleanse the soul and remove sins. No treatment was too harsh if done in God's name. A particularly degrading scene shows two nuns forcing a group of naked women to jump up and down for their entertainment. Then the nuns casually passed judgment on the women's physical attributes. Who's the fattest? Who's got the biggest and littlest breasts? Who's got the hairiest private parts?

The central recurring theme of The Magdalene Sisters is the concept that redemption can only be achieved through punishment and suffering. The twin beliefs that God wills our suffering for making mistakes and that we have to do something sacrificial to make up for mistakes (or to win his favor) have been kicking around since the start of time. Religions captured these ideas and labeled them "sin" and "penance." A sin is an eternal judgment of badness, and penance is something you have to do to make up for the sin. Penance comes from the midevil Latin word poenitentia, which is also the root for penitentiary.

The Magdalene Sisters implores us to look at these persistent and popular beliefs and to think about whether they actually work or make sense. Two catalytic events happen at the end of the movie which force Bernadette to consider if there's anything useful to be gained by continuing to suffer and to do penance. The first event is the rescue of Margaret by her younger brother, who travels by himself to the laundry and insists on Margaret's release. Bernadette realizes that unlike Margaret, no one is coming to rescue her.

The second event is the death of Katy, an older woman who was an inmate at the laundry her entire life. Katy was devoted to the nuns and often performed as their tattletale helper. Her fidelity, however, didn't buy Katy any earthly "points" from her keepers. Bernadette sees that Katy's brief sickness and death is inconsequential to the nuns and that Katy's lifetime of service, hard labor and suffering didn't matter. Bernadette realizes that her life and death will be wasted, just like Katy's, if she doesn't do something to help herself. Finally, Bernadette talks Rose into joining her in a breakout from the laundry, and they both manage to escape.

After their release from the laundry, none of the three women in the story had sex without the benefit of marriage. Cruel and hash treatments often work, and we observe that the methods used by the nuns brought about the desired result. This plus confusion about a judging and punitive God is what makes it so very difficult to truly embrace a life of love and harmlessness. The unasked question is could the nuns have gotten the same result another way?

This is not a mainstream movie, and you'll have to dig around for it at Netflix or at Amazon, but it's worth the effort. Get your ears ready for the strong Irish dialect. Transport yourself back to an Ireland of 50 years ago. And allow yourself to be repulsed by Geraldine McEwan as Sister Bridgett. McEwan's Sister Bridgett dishes out cruelty as effortlessly and naturally as Moms dish out oatmeal to their kids. One of the best scenes in the whole movie involves Sister Bridget arranging for a holiday showing of The Bell's of Saint Mary's for the nuns and women who live at the laundry. Sister Bridgett is so moved by the pious performance of Ingrid Bergman as a nun that we see silent tears streaming down her face. It's delicious to discover Sister Bridgett actually has a heart. Too bad it's for the big silver screen!

Giant kudos, too, to Nora-Jane Noon, Dorothy Duffy, and Anne-Marie Duff, the women who authentically played Bernadette, Rose, and Margaret. A few instances of over-the-top screenwriting, especially involving scenes with the Crispina character, were the only very slight spoilers to this otherwise perfect movie. All in all it's satisfying on many levels.

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About Karen Bentley

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