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The Magdalene Sisters
Reviewed by Carla Freccero


The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by actor Peter Mullan, is based on the documented practices in Ireland in the nineteen-sixties, of consigning sexually unruly (or potentially sexually unruly) adolescent girls to sister of Mercy convents that provided local laundry services, called the Magdalene Laundries (Joni Mitchell, apparently, has a song about them).

Critics and reviewers compare the events depicted here to life in a prison camp and sputter all kinds of moral outrage about how such a thing could occur in a western nation (Afghanistan is one thing, but here? Seems to be the implication). They also go out of their way to mention that practice of consigning girls to these convents did not stop until 1996, suggesting that such a thing might have been understandable back in the old days, but now?

I had trouble finding it all as unusual as the press was making it out to be. This is a movie ultimately about class and the indentured servitude of the children of the poor everywhere, especially when they are girls, since girls always have the potential of becoming a financial burden to their families of birth. The movie only really hints at this aspect of it, through the threat of teen pregnancy: if she is unmarried and wants to keep her child, she not only brings "shame" to the family-this is how the movie actually frames it-but she also brings two mouths to feed in perpetuity.

The movie shows us the unfairness of sexual ideology about girls: if there's transgression, it is because the daughters of Eve invite it. I'm pretty sure, furthermore, that this morality is not exclusively Catholic; since this country (meaning the United States) is not a Catholic country and such attitudes still often prevail. It doesn't surprise me though that an angry politicized Irish man would point the finger there, at the church, or that that's how audiences in this country would receive the message, after everything that's been going on. My own anger was directed rather more at the families who sent their daughters away and at the gendered double standard that seems to persist everywhere. The Church's special crime here was that, first, it did not admit to having engaged in inhumane exploitation and second not to have apologized and made restitution.

For being violent and terrifying to watch, the movie is also surprisingly quiet and understated and this, I think, is its power. The nuns are not wholly outside the domain of the human, in spite of their cruelty, and the girls are remarkably plucky and adaptable, for the most part. In fact, I was reminded of Hannah Arendt's remarks about the banality of evil-it's all so ordinary in a way. And-in this world-it's business as usual, corporate capitalism's international exploitation of cheap labor, looking a bit more barbaric because the agents of exploitation are nuns and the business is that feudal stronghold, the Catholic Church.

As I watched the film, I was worried that everything would turn out badly. It doesn't, so don't let that fear deter you from going to see it. What's really good about The Magdalene Sisters is that it's a story about the indomitable spirit of some of these girls, about their agency, their sense of righteousness, and their inventiveness. It doesn't make them into saints, not at all, but rather it shows us that, in one case, it's the very sexually precocious sauciness of one girl that saves her, while it's the firm conviction of her blamelessness that enables another one to survive. The third heroine makes it because she has a child she loves.

There are brilliant scenes in this movie: the terrible gut wrenching realization that the old women who work in the laundries were once its very young charges; the absolutely astonishing acting by Eileen Walsh, who plays the unforgettable character Crispina; a scene where the nuns deliberately humiliate the girls by having them stand naked while commenting on their bodies; Margaret's fury at her brother's belated arrival; Bernadette's bargaining with the laundry delivery boy. The girls are fine actors and their characters are strong and luminous figures that win you over to their side, sometimes in spite of themselves. Even the abbess, Sister Bridget, played by Geraldine McEwan, becomes shockingly human when we see her watch Ingrid Bergman onscreen in The Bells of St Mary's (and if that isn't a dig at the romanticization of nuns in the movies!) There are also some infelicities, like the way Bernadette's eyebrows are perfectly plucked, or the way one of the young girls' hair grows back into a very charming and chic gamine look. But this is, after all, a movie, and we do have to look at a few pretty faces even when the story is an ugly one about what you get when you have a pretty face.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.