The Magdalene Sisters Controversy
by Steven D. Greydanus, 2003
The first question that arises in response to The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan’s controversial, critically acclaimed film about Irish penitential asylums for wayward girls and women, is: Did these horrors really happen?
Did the Magdalene asylums, originally established in the nineteenth century by the Sisters of Mercy as spiritual refuges for prostitutes and other women penitents, go on to hold girls and even grown women against their will, for disgraces ranging from extramarital pregnancy to mere flirting or even having been raped?
Did some women grow old and die working in the infamous Magdalene laundries, not necessarily out of personal conviction or desire for a vocation to lifelong penance, but more or less because the doors were locked?
Were girls brutally beaten for inadvertent or minor offenses, stripped naked and mocked by sadistic nuns over the sizes of their various body parts, abused in other ways?
Tragically, it seems that there may indeed be truth to these charges. While The Magdalene Sisters is a work of fiction, the abuses it depicts are allegedly based on credible survivor accounts of life in the Magdalene institutions, which are said to have taken in as many as 30,000 women between their inception in the 1880s and their final closing in 1996. In fact, there are reports that, according to some survivors, the abuses depicted in The Magdalene Sisters actually fall short of the worst that really happened, and the director himself has commented that he refrained from recreating the most terrible reported incidents for fear of overwhelming and alienating the audience.
In the wake of publicity and controversy surrounding the film — which took home the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and was strongly criticized in a review in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano — the American wing of the Sisters of Mercy issued a statement acknowledging that the Magdalene institutions represent "a time in the history of the Catholic Church and religious orders of which we are not proud," and apologizing for "anyone who may have been abused at the hands of our sisters, or any sisters." (Media reports that the film was "condemned by the Vatican" are incorrect; a film review in L’Osservatore Romano doesn’t amount to the Vatican taking a stand on a film.)
A second question that arises is: How could this have happened? Is the truth simply that the nuns who ran the Magdalene asylums were monsters of cruelty? How could they have imagined themselves to be serving God while committing such blatantly unchristian acts as ritual humiliation of naked girls? For that matter, how could parents so easily have handed over daughters who in some cases had done nothing wrong? How could the state have permitted adult women to be held under lock and key without process of law?
To lay the entire blame at the feet of the nuns and priests involved is unsatisfying and unpersuasive. Certainly there have been abusive nuns and priests guilty of misusing their authority over the vulnerable — just as there are bad teachers, bosses, doctors, police officers, military personnel, and politicians guilty of doing the same. Even so, most teachers, bosses, and other authority figures get by without committing such flagrant abuses; and so do most nuns and priests.
The Sisters of Mercy who ran the Magdalene institutions were probably pretty much like anybody else, with some bad apples, some good ones, and most somewhere in the middle. This, indeed, is part of the horror: How could people who might perhaps turn out to be fairly human if you got to know them participate in something of this enormity?
Perhaps the Magdalene asylums were affected by some kind of cultural pathology, some institutionalized or social sin, that fostered especially cruel behavior. If so, it was a pathology not specific to the Catholic Church, but was shared by other Irish churches (which ran similar institutions of their own) as well as by society at large and the state. (At the time that the Magdalene asylums began, Catholicism had only recently come out of centuries of persecution, and the Irish populace had been able to publically practice their faith for little more than a generation; so attempts to blame the pathologies of society and the state entirely on the Church would seem to be unpersuasive.)
But The Magdalene Sisters isn’t interested in exploring the pathologies of the culture or the psychology of the oppressors. The film offers no insights into its villains, the nuns, priests, and parents; it has no interest in what they were thinking, how they could have rationalized their actions in their own minds. When the parents of the young rape victim (Anne-Marie Duff) bundle her off to the laundries, when a nun reduces a girl to tears by sadistic mockery, we learn absolutely nothing about what these people thought about what they were doing, why they felt that such actions were justifiable and appropriate.
Instead, the film simply presents its nuns, priests, and parents as cruel, judgmental, and evil — end of story. Its sole interest in them is insofar as they are responsible for the unjust suffering of the girls.
Nobody likes to see representatives of their own group demonized or dehumanized on the screen. Stereotyped depictions of villainous bucktoothed Japanese, fanatical Arab terrorists, brutal military men, menacing urban blacks, hate-filled intolerant Christians, and similar negative portrayals of other groups have all been the subjects of protest and outcry.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with making a movie about bad apples. A movie about corrupt cops isn’t necessarily obliged to depict a representative number of good cops, or to sermonize about how many good cops there are in the world.
Yet suppose that someone were to make a serious film called LAPD that depicted exclusively vicious, lawless cops relentlessly brutalizing individuals who were always either wholly innocent victims or else guilty of nothing more serious than jaywalking. Suppose, further, that the director of the film, in interviews, compared the real-life LAPD to the Taliban, and that he himself was a bitter ex-cop and antiestablishment anarchist who considered the whole concept of criminal and penal law absurd. Even if the individual episodes in the film may have been based in fact, would there be any serious question that the film was pernicious anti-cop propaganda?
Peter Mullan was raised Catholic but in interviews has stated that he has considered himself a Marxist from his teenaged years, and has described belief in heaven and hell as "nonsense" and "the whole notion of celibacy" as "nuts" and "perverse." Additionally, he has drawn an incendiary analogy between the nuns who ran the Magdalene asylums and the Taliban, presumably in connection with how each treated the women under their control (remarks that apparently were misquoted and misrepresented, especially on the Internet, as broadly equating the Taliban and the Catholic Church).
Mullan claims that his film isn’t meant to be anti-Catholic, but is meant to expose the victimization of young women by a certain phenomenon in the Church. Nevertheless, he freely acknowledges his animosity toward his Catholic upbringing, and admits that he brought his prejudices and sympathies to this project.
Perhaps he didn’t consciously set out to make an anti-Catholic film. D. W. Griffith didn’t set out to make a racist film, but it doesn’t make Birth of a Nation any less racist. Jewish activist groups have been vocally protesting Mel Gibson’s upcoming The Passion over how it will portray first-century Jewish leaders, which they fear will lead to anti-semitic sentiment. Yet that film will at least have some positive depictions of Jewish leaders — for example, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both members of the Sanhedrin.
By contrast, Mullan’s black-and-white (or rather black and more black) depiction of clergy and religious is absolute: Not a single character in a wimple or a roman collar ever manifests even the slightest shred of kindness, compassion, human decency, or genuine spirituality; not one has the briefest instant of guilt, regret or inner conflict over the energetic, sometimes cheerfully brutal sadism and abuse that pervades the film.
The closest Mullan comes to humanizing his ecclesiastical figures are brief moments of aesthetic enjoyment or artistic expression. The film opens with a handsome young priest passionately playing a bodhrán and singing a traditional folk song at a wedding reception; minutes later, he’s complicit in the institutionalizing of one of the film’s protagonists, the young rape victim. Later, Sr. Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), the sadistic nun in charge of the asylum — whom even favorable reviews routinely compare with the infamous Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — smilingly confesses a lifelong love of cinema.
Such glimpses of something other than mere sadism notwithstanding, decency and compassion are entirely absent. If this doesn’t qualify as anti-Catholic, what would?
Whatever value the film might have had as an exposé of social sin is undermined, not enhanced, by its prejudicial stereotyping of every individual nun and priest. Instead of being a morally serious film about a corrupt institution in a flawed society, The Magdalene Sisters becomes mere agitprop about how evil and terrible Irish Catholic nuns, priests, and parents are.
Thus, for example, Valerio Riva, a member of the administrative board of the arts council that runs the Venice Film Festival, protested the festival’s top award going to what he called "an incorrect propaganda film," even going so far as to say that "the director is comparable to [Nazi propagandist] Leni Riefenstahl."
It’s important to note that not all films critical of Catholic clergy or religious are guilty of this sort of thing. The 1995 Vatican film list includes such hierarchy-indicting titles as The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Mission, and Andrei Rublev. (Somehow I can’t imagine many other groups officially recognizing films similarly depicting their leadership in such critical terms.)
That the Magdalene asylums represent a phenomenon as deserving of critical scrutiny as the trial of Joan of Arc or the ecclesiastical abandonment of the Guaraní missions, I don’t question. Mullan, however, betrays his subject with smug Catholic-bashing. It’s a tragedy that the enormity of what went wrong at the Magdalene asylums has been trivialized by cheap manipulation.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website is the Decent Films Guide.