The girls are in Irish-Catholic prison for varying offenses: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) was raped by her cousin; Rose (Dorothy Duffy) had a baby out of wedlock; and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) was guilty of nothing more than sex potential, having spent her life in an orphanage until she was plucked out and sent to the convent to prevent her from blossoming into an actual sinner. There are dozens of others in this asylum, hundreds more trapped in Ireland’s various Magdalene homes during the 1960s, but it’s these three who guide us through “The Magdalene Sisters,” a grim indictment of anyone and everyone who violated human decency in the name of God.
The Magdalene asylum system is surely something Ireland would rather history forgot, a dark footnote in an ugly Catholic legacy still making news today with sex scandals. The girls are kept in what amounts to a jail glorified by God, where the idea of free will is beaten out of them with switches and rulers. They are not allowed to be naked, instead forced to change from dingy work dresses to dingy nightgowns through fantastic feats of wriggling. The nuns tell them they will find salvation through penance, but believe that a slut will always be a slut, which is what they consider every girl brought to them to be: A slut, and a slave, forced to work in the convent laundry for nothing while the nunnery coffers grow fat.
Writer/director Peter Mullan’s hate letter paints a dark world in which the church is morally and financially corrupt, and thousands of women are left to die without hope. Their plight is brought into sharp relief by his trio of stars, virtual unknowns. As is Mullan, whose second full-length effort is an unexpected — and emotionally wringing — bit of cinema. (Mullan is an actor most recognizable as drug house proprietor Mother Superior in Trainspotting.) His washed-out, laundry-room palette and austere set design look as any house of horrors cowering under the mantle of religion must, devoid of anything to distract the eye from the work at hand; the performances he gets from his actors are by turns shattering and scary.
The film’s greatest tragic figure is Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a daft girl the priest sexually abuses while the nuns make constant fun (even in the name they give her, which means “girl with the curly hair” — Crispina’s is lank and stick-straight). She bears a striking resemblance to Shelley Duvall and serves as a canvas on which the people behind the Magdalene system writ their sins large, abandoning a soul who needs not cruelty but comfort and compassion. She never quite understands what has happened to her, and it’s easy to see how many women must have been brainwashed by the life they were forced into by uncaring relatives who could not bear the mark of “slut” upon the family name. The film’s epilogue says that the last Magdalene asylum didn’t shut down until 1996; The Magdalene Sisters makes no attempt to apologize for any of those in charge, and, rightly, refuses to forgive or forget.
Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-263-2111.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].