.Bearing the Cross

‘The Magdalene Sisters’ airs the dirty laundry of the Catholic Church

Sister Bridget is not in a good mood. But she’s in perfect form. With Girl Interrupted finesse, she snatches a pair of scissors, spots her target and descends upon it without so much of a sign of the cross. Moments later, the young rebellious woman the nun had been monitoring is sporting a new hairdo. She’s also left with blood streaming from her scalp.

Twisted sister? Let’s have another look.

It’s morning. The women confined in a Catholic-run asylum are rounded up for exercise. They’re all naked. A nun slowly walks past them, her eyes inspecting every one of their curvatures. She doesn’t just mock the ladies—she purposely shames them, hoping to instill self-loathing. The woman with the most pubic hair? Easy pickings. When the nun is through with her, she immediately dissolves into a puddle of emotions.

Welcome to one of Ireland’s Magdalene Asylums circa 1964, a place where the spiritual red carpet was rolled out for all the Catholic girls accused of “moral crimes” against society. It’s the grim setting of Peter Mullan’s surprisingly intense new drama, The Magdalene Sisters, a fictional film whose scenarios are rooted in reality, which, in itself, is even more disturbing. (How many more shocking, hidden truths will be revealed from the Catholic Church?) Admittedly, this heavy subject is not the light-hearted Labor Day fair people would hope to gobble up. But even though real life is not often easy to swallow—or digest—this movie deserves a look.

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The 411 on the actual Magdalene Asylums is not pretty. They were given the Magdalene moniker after “the repentant biblical prostitute” Mary Magdalene, sprouting—like weeds?— in the 19th century as a place for young woman to “atone” for their “sexual sins”—an interesting choice of semantics considering some were raped; others were considered attractive or became pregnant. Once confined to the “voluntary institutions,” the Irish women were forced to adhere to a strict code of silence. When the 20th century hit, the church ushered in the Sisters of Mercy to oversee the asylums. These no-nonsense nuns seemed to salivate over the idea of confining “fallen women” who they felt were in “moral danger.” Soon, those very women were forced to work at least 10-hour days, 364 days a year in laundries—it soon became a booming business. The conditions in Ireland at the time was not lovely, either. It was mostly impoverished and parents were often pressured to turn over their kids to orphanages run by priests who would inevitably recommend confinement in the asylum. Because sex has and to this day continues to be a mega issue in Catholic Church’s side, embracing sexuality was definite no-no—the women were taught that their own bodies were, basically, sinful things.

There’s more:

•The women confined in these places, a throwback to medieval times, really, were not prepped for life outside the asylum walls.

•Former inmate stigma left an impact after release.

•Many women, unable to cope on the outside, returned.

•There were reports of visiting priests sexually abusing the women.

•In the ’60s, there were riots in Scotland’s Magdalene Asylums.

•The financial draw of the asylum’s laundries weaned when washing machines were swooped up by the masses.

•The last Magdalene Asylum closed its doors in Ireland in 1996—there were nearly 50 women still in residence at the time.

•A reported 30,000 women were said to have gone through the Magdalene Asylum’s doors.


The buzz on The Magdalene Sisters has been good—it nabbed the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival—and Mullen, a noteworthy actor-turned-director, has created quite a coup de théâtre—in addition to penning the script and directing the movie, he had boldly cast himself in the pic. In the film, Mullen focuses on the relationship between four women. There’s Sister Bridget, played to emotional extremes by Geraldine McEwan—think Nazi stormtropper in a nun’s frock—and three “inmates.” The first, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), was raped by her cousin and after confiding in a friend, finds herself the shame of the town—she’s soon ushered off the holy internment camp. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is sent to the asylum after giving birth to her illegitimate child—she isn’t afforded the privilege of keeping the baby. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is an orphan is forced into the asylum only because she adores boys—too much. What Mullen does is showcase the strong bond between the three women as their courageous attempts to revolt creates many surprising scenarios. Is there manna for these women after the brutal hell they’re subjected to? In a way, yes. But the experience of watching just how that happens may best serve the subject here.

But what The Magdalene Sisters delivers far outweighs its thematic enterprise. To use the Catholic vernacular, it crucifies the holier-than-thou image the church had upheld through time. It also resurrects the belief that, as cliché-sounding as it may be, human spirit far surpasses the ego-driven mind’s need to confine it. Lastly, this film somehow begs to ask: shouldn’t the Catholic Church come down off the cross it’s nailed itself on for everlasting appraisal and, perhaps, confess all its sins?

Fortunately, they’ll know where to find the confessional.

The Magdalene Sisters, Rated R, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.



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