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The Magdalene Sisters

COMING CLEAN

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A priest clutches a bodhran to his chest as sweat pours from his fevered brow, his hands slamming against the drum's skin in a frenzy of pounding rhythm, his lips pressed in ecstasy against the instrument: It's clear from The Magdalene Sisters' opening sequence that the Catholic Church, despite its strictures, cannot contain sexuality or its weaker cousin, sensuality -- even within its own. But it tried -- and as writer/director Peter Mullan's film depicts, the attempts could be brutally cruel.

The Magdalene Asylums were established more than a century ago in Ireland as institutions for "wayward" women. Here, these women could live out a life of penance -- removed from the temptations of sin and redeemed through manual labor. (The asylums were named for the prostitute Mary Magdalene, who made a memorable penance before Jesus at the Last Supper.) The asylums were administered by Catholic nuns, and throughout the 20th century operated as commercial laundries; with free labor, they made a steady profit for the church.

Increasingly, the definition of "women in moral peril" grew elastic enough to include girls and women who through fuzzily defined sins of vanity and sexuality could be committed involuntarily -- often by their priests or families. It's believed that as many as 30,000 women passed through the asylum, some who spent their entire lives locked away in constant servitude.

It's a shocking history -- and Mullan, by way of condensing a century of misery, introduces us to three teen-age girls and the circumstances that warrant their exile to a Magdalene Asylum in Dublin in 1964. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has just had a child out of wedlock. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is sexually assaulted by her cousin at a wedding and makes the mistake of telling. Bernadette, already in a church-run orphan's home, is sent to the asylum for being flirty and -- as a Magdalene nun notes later -- for just looking as if she would get into trouble eventually. Once at the asylum, the girls meet Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a simple-minded girl, condemned for bearing a child and who, in her desperation, is slowly sliding into madness.

Mullan, who clearly has an agenda as determined as that of any grand old muckraker, often makes his critiques obvious. When the girls first meet their "protector," Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a sweet-faced nun with twinkly eyes and a cruel tongue, she's counting out the laundry's profits. The women of the asylum eat gruel while the nuns slather jam onto their toast.

In spite of its measured pace, the film can't help being a trifle dramatic with its many representative episodes packed into two hours. (How can you realistically depict decades of drudgery?) Fortunately, Mullan doesn't take a frantic outraged tone, preferring instead to let quiet (if not so subtle) moments accumulate. Mullan also works hard to show the complicity of everyone from parents to clergy to strangers on the street. Brutality has never seemed so benign dressed up in full habit and wimple -- backed by the full weight of the conjoined church and state.

Mullan, in only his second full feature, directs with simple style that leaves the narrative free from gimmicky visual distractions. An established actor himself (My Name is Joe, The Claim), Mullan found real winners in his four lead actresses, two of whom (Duffy and Noone) make their debuts. Noone especially simply smolders with a wholly innocent sensuality, the repression of which turns her hard.

The movie's poster says "triumphant story," but you should prepare yourself to feel pretty depressed. This is a nation we hold fondly that sanctioned appalling cruelty to women and children; an institution meant to "save" women from essentially being human that systematically robbed them of humanity and destroyed their lives.

It's a sad fact that the last Magdalene Asylum didn't close until 1996, and the Catholic Church has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge what survivors have related, or make any sort of restitution. Yet we needn't wait for their official version. Mullan, who recently landed the marketing two-fer of collecting the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival and being condemned by the Vatican, has made a film worth seeing today.

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