Peter Mullan's 2002 movie The Magdalene Sisters depicts the dark side of Irish culture, church, and history. From the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland ran profitable asylums for women. The laundry businesses allowed the convents to earn money while keeping socially scorned women behind bars. Yet far from being a place of spiritual refuge, the Magdalene laundries often became torture houses closely resembling concentration camps. As Mullan shows, spirituality was completely superceded by cruelty, greed, torture, and manipulation. The brutality shown on screen reveals a chilling behind-the-scenes glimpse of what actually did occur regularly in Magdalene asylum laundries.
The culture that supported such institutions was an inherently sexist one, as many of the interred women committed no offense other than having shamed their families or being attractive. Although a fictionalized account, The Magdalene Sisters shows what mental and physical abuse generally occurred behind the doors of Magdalene asylum laundries. "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," (Greydanus). The Magdalene laundries, which were operated by the Sisters of Mercy throughout Ireland, were finally shut down for good in 1996. However, during their century of operation, countless women suffered abuses similar to those depicted on-screen by Scottish writer-director Peter Mullan.
Since their inception in the late nineteenth century, Magdalene asylums like the one described in the film harbored as many as 30,000 women. Most of the women were placed into the asylums for no clear reason other than that they were tainted with the stigma of being female. Mullan clearly underscores the sexist element in Irish society in The Magdalene Sisters, as the three main characters of the film were each placed into the asylum for spurious reasons. Margaret gets raped by her cousin at a family wedding and is subsequently placed in the asylum. Apparently her father felt shamed, as if Margaret herself was to blame for the incident. Similarly, because the boys at Bernadette's orphanage flirt with her through the fence, she is believed to be a sinner and a temptress and is quickly hauled off to the Magdalene Sisters. Rose gave birth out of wedlock, and in spite of her incessant pleas to both her mother and her father to allow her to raise the child, she is forced into the asylum. Chrispina had also given birth out of wedlock.
Laundering clothes served a symbolic as well as a practical purpose: scrubbing dirty laundry represented the erasing of sin. The object, states the formidable Sister Bridget, is to "remove the stains on your soul." The women entering the asylums were all believed to have been terrible sinners who came to the Sisters of Mercy to carry out their penance. The Sisters of Mercy named their asylums after Mary Magdalene, the New Testament's premier sinner-turned-redeemed. Sister Bridget tells the newcomers that Mary Magdalene sold her soul for money at the same time as she greedily fingers wads of money. The irony is lost on the head nun. As Mullan's film shows, the real sins were perpetrated by the nuns and priests, not the young women.
The Magdalene Sisters is a poignant production, characterized by intense imagery, vivid dialogue, and strong characters. Moreover, Mullan doesn't just focus his attention on the religious philosophies behind the laundries; the writer-director also draws the viewers' attention toward the underlying social, political, and philosophical realities that permitted such abuses to take place within Irish society. For example, one of the young sisters runs away from the asylum, only to be taken back by her father who then beats her in front of the other girls in the dormitory. The girl cries out "Please don't leave me here!" In spite of her father beating her silly; her screams show just how bad the asylums were. The father's lack of compassion for his daughter's wishes, coupled with his willful, impassioned beating is an extreme example that nevertheless illustrates the inferior status of women in Irish society. Furthermore, while the father beats his daughter, a nun watches in silence, without concern. The Church is complicit in the subordination of women, based on Church doctrine and concepts of original sin.
Mullan uses deft cinematic elements to depict the subordination of women. For example, in the opening scene at Margaret's family wedding, intense Celtic music overwhelms the need for dialogue and therefore signifies Margaret being silenced by a male-dominated society. Furthermore, Margaret's father sends her away without any input from his wife or his son, who watch on helplessly. Mullan frequently uses visual imagery to depict the subordination of women. For instance, at Bernadette's orphanage, the boys stand several levels higher up than the orphanage playground, symbolizing the male dominance over women. At the Magdalene laundry, the word "God" is written in bold capital letters on a beam above the dormitory beds. The visual placement of the word parallels the visual placement of the boys at the orphanage. Here, a patriarchal Catholic God keeps eternal vigil over women.
Magdalene Sisters is full of symbolic elements that propel the movie. Through such cinematic elements, Mullan makes a powerful statement about the perception of sin by the Catholic Church. For instance, the orphanage in the film is aptly named "Attracta," in reference to Bernadette's supposed sin of attractiveness. Then when the young girls at the orphanage ask Bernadette whether it is a sin to be beautiful, Bernadette responds no, that the Virgin Mary was beautiful and therefore beauty cannot be a sin. Nevertheless, it is primarily because of her beauty that the headmistresses at the orphanage send Bernadette to the asylum.
Thus, the cruelty in The Magdalene Sisters begins far before the girls even enter the asylum. All three of the opening sequences include a strong visual element testifying to the sexist nature of the abuse. Margaret's cousin physically overtakes her in an act of rape, and then her father thrusts her into a strange car against her will. Bernadette stands below the boys, who outnumber her and stand on top of her. Rose's father physically stands between her and her child, as does Father Dooligan, who patronizingly asks the young mother, "Would you have the child pay for your sins?" Such overt signs of physical dominance continue later in the movie, as when Una's father beats her while she crouches on her bed, and also when Father Fitzroy rapes the unwitting Chrispina.
Mullan continually reminds viewers how integral Catholicism is to Irish culture by showing how Catholic imagery permeates everything. Crosses are everywhere, and scripture is read during each meal. Even the asylum's new washing machines are blessed by the priest. Mullan shows how the religion often brings sorrow rather than spirituality, and also delivers a false sense of salvation. The atmosphere of the asylum is austere and repressive. The girls are not permitted to talk, and as a result they are unable to develop close bonds of friendship with one another, bonds that might have somewhat eased the pain of being incarcerated. The idea is to create an atmosphere of suffering; the girls pay for their sins by enduring cruelty.
In spite of the Church-sponsored abuse, the girls all remain devoted to Catholicism. They have largely dissociated the spiritual elements of the Church from the social and political ones. For example, Bernadette's allusion to the Virgin Mary while at the orphanage proves her devotion to Catholicism. Although she becomes the most rebellious girl in the group, she does not scorn God. Rather, Bernadette sees through the hypocrisy toward the insipid inhumanity exhibited by the supposed servants of God. Indeed, all of the girls in the film remain devout Catholics in spite of being betrayed by the Church. Most of the girls have internalized Church doctrine. For example, after she gives birth to an illegitimate child, Rose claims, "I know it's sinful what I did." At the end of The Magdalene Sisters, the director offers synopses of what happens to the four main characters after the end of the events shown on-screen. Rose remains "a devout Catholic."
The church corruption shown in the film ranges from straightforward greed to disgusting acts of molestation. For example, toward the beginning of the movie the nuns chatter over their rich-looking meal of fresh bread and meat while the girls eat gruel in silence. The nuns are also guilty of intense mental abuse, as when they ritualistically line up the girls in the showers to compare the size of their breasts and bottoms. The imagery is sadistic; even without showing acts of sexual abuse on-screen, Mullan implies that such abuses did take place. For example, Margaret witnesses Father Fitzroy in the midst of a sex act. Later it turns out that Fitzroy regularly rapes Chrispina, one of the asylum inmates who also had a child out of wedlock. Chrispina's aversion to scrubbing priest collars suddenly becomes clear. The nuns also physically abuse the girls through lashings,…