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A moving portrayal

Richard Chittick

“The Magdalene Sisters” is an honest presentation of the unfair cruelties that lurk in Western Europe’s past. Although it’s quite possibly the most difficult movie I’ve watched in several years, it also stands out as one of the best.

This captivating story centers on a roughly four-year span in the lives of four young Irish women in the late “50s and early “60s. Two of the women have given birth out-of-wedlock, one is a rambunctious flirt and another is the unfortunate victim of a rape.

Because their families all believe they are guilty of sins, all four of the women have been sent to a convent where they are forced by power-hungry nuns to abide by strict Catholic rules as they perform slave labor to provide the surrounding communities with clean laundry.

Perhaps the most difficult part of watching these four girls and their peers being abused both mentally and physically is that, although the storyline is set in fiction, it is based on a true story.

In the credits, director Peter Mullan gives notice to a documentary entitled “Love in a Cold Climate,” which inspired much of the movie he has created.

That documentary aired on the British Broadcasting Channel in 1994.

The whole plight of the young women in these laundries was initially brought forth in a play titled “Eclipsed,” by Patricia Burke Brogden, who spent some time working in one of the laundries in the early 1970’s.

The movie is unrelenting in it’s portrayal of the harsh reality of the Magdalene laundries.

From the very beginning, Sister Bridget, who runs the convent portrayed in the movie, shows the girls that talking out of turn will not be tolerated, and insubordination will be punished.

Before their first day in the convent is finished, the three girls – Margaret, Bernadette and Rose – are forced into hard work in the laundry. There they meet Crispina.

At every turn, they meet up with the harsh rules of the convent, and at times are humiliated and/or beaten by nuns who believe the abuse will lead the girls to a more humble and pious lifestyle.

Throughout the movie, the girls rely on each other for emotional support until Margaret’s brother comes and pulls her out of the convent and Crispina tries to kill herself and is carted off to a mental asylum. It’s then that Bernadette and Rose take their fates into their own hands, and the movie hits it’s energetic climax.

Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy and Eileen Walsh provide powerful performances as Margaret, Bernadette, Rose and Crispina, respectively. And Geraldine McEwan masterfully portrays Sister Bridget as an evil authoritarian who actually believes that what she is doing to these girls is right.

Again, this movie is rather hard to digest. In researching the background of this movie, I’ve found several online forums where the discussion has escalated into emotional diatribes over its meaning.

At the same time, Mullan is a Catholic from Scotland, and in interviews has stated that he showed the finished product to survivors of the laundries who verified its authenticity before it was released.

It is a tremendously moving story and a well-crafted movie by Mullan. It won the Golden Lion Award for best picture at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, and has been nominated for several other awards as well.

It’s a movie that made me think about social injustices. It didn’t make me think about production values or special effects. It was simply a good movie.

Richard Chittick can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236, or at rchittick@summitdaily.com.

“Magdalene’ a must-see

Kimberly Nicoletti

For people with grudges against religion, the abusive conditions “The Magdalene Sisters” portrays provide fuel for their resentments.

For Catholics – especially Irish Catholics – it’s an interesting historical documentation and a reminder of how far the church has come, and perhaps, has to go.

“The Magdalene Sisters” isn’t one of the most disturbing movies I’ve seen, but it’s one that sticks with me.

It speaks to how some people abuse the power of religion, and it speaks to it well.

Rather than spewing out graphic scenes like many mainstream movies do, the film develops characters and interactions that elicit emotional responses. The way the nuns cut a girl’s hair, for example, says more than any violent scene could depict.

According to church records, 10 Magdalene laundries in Ireland took in about 30,000 girls for decades until the last one closed in 1996. Officials named the asylums after Mary Magdalene, a prostitute who repented.

“The Magdalene Sisters” documents some of the atrocities that took place in the institutions. The film doles each one out slowly rather than shocking viewers with a barrage of emotional, psychological, sexual and physical abuse. After the credits confirm the authenticity of what transpired on the screen and each story adds up, it leaves a profound impact.

Nuns at the Magdalene laundries insisted girls reject their individuality and sexuality. They cropped long hair, made girls wear drab uniforms and demanded silence as girls washed hundreds of clothes six days a week. The labor was their penance – they symbolically purged their “sins” by cleaning dirty linen.

Every Saturday night, nuns forced girls to strip naked while the superiors laughed at and criticized the young bodies. Every day, girls wore straps to flatten their breasts.

Some girls landed at the laundries simply for being attractive. Their families feared they’d bring shame, so they hid the girls away. One family sent their daughter there because her cousin raped her. Rather than dealing with the incest, the family hid the shame from neighbors by hiding the victim.

The stigma of having a child out of wedlock weighed so heavily that many families rejected their daughters, locking them away in the asylums to repent by demanding chastity in thought and deed.

The girls remained in the laundry facilities, cut off from the outside world, until a family member came to fetch them or until they built the courage to walk away as an adult.

After years of emotional abuse and learning to reject their bodies – and therefore, themselves – many women remained in the laundries for a lifetime, convinced they were true sinners who didn’t deserve respect.

At first, “The Magdalene Sisters” is difficult to follow because it shows four girls’ stories. If you don’t know they eventually end up in the asylum, the seemingly disparate stories initially don’t tie together.

But that’s the only downfall of the movie. If you know the basic premise of “The Magdalene Sisters,” it’s easy to overlook.

“The Magdalene Sisters” stands strong as an intense film, similar to “The Pianist” and “Schindler’s List.”

It’s one of those necessary films to see. Simply watching it provides a personal experience of other people’s suffering in the name of a (skewed) ideal.

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or by e-mail at knicoletti@summitdaily.com.


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