[Our Sunday Visitor, September 14, 2003]
You know how, when you’re changing channels and land on an old movie, you can guess when it was made? Cinematic "looks" change with fashion, and it’s easy to tell opulent, color-drenched early-60’s style from the sparer 70’s or smoky 40’s. In "The Magdalene Sisters," a film about the "Magdalene asylums" operated by the Irish Catholic church, director Peter Mullan displays his genius for capturing the look that today’s moviegoers crave-one that proclaims authenticity.
It takes hard work to achieve this look, requiring relentless attention to costumes, props, textures, gestures, makeup. Contrast this with older movies content with painted-canvas backdrops and bare-bones sets. For earlier generations, a few impressionist strokes were sufficient to suspend disbelief; for us it takes photorealism. "The Magdalene Sisters" presents itself as a near-documentary, and the main characters are even given bios at the end, in which on-screen text tells us what happened in the remainder of their lives.
But these women didn’t really exist; they are fictional composites. A writer/director has to be as meticulous in choosing these character details as he is in set decor and costumes. But Mullan is so transfixed by his story that he has made some bad choices.
Start with the opening scene, in which Margaret is lured away from a wedding reception by a cousin and raped. What happens next? My guess, based on the combination of Irish blood and several hours of wedding-reception drinking, was that irate, weeping female relatives would cluster around Margaret, while male relatives frog-march the boy outside for a pounding he won’t forget, or possibly survive. Instead, Margaret’s stony-faced parents just pack her into a car and dump her at the asylum.
Mullan is gambling that we’ll think "What parent could act that way?" and invest emotionally. But we’re just as likely to think, "What parent could act that way?" and step back in skepticism.
Disbelief’s suspension cables snap again when we meet the Sister Superior, Sr. Brigid (Geraldine McEwan). In hamfisted touch, she is introduced as a pair of hands counting money, while her malevolent voice over intones an order to repent. Sr. Brigid is a one-note character, motivated solely by greed. But think about it: is running a laundry really such a gold mine? Especially when she has to make the income support several dozen women? Sr. Brigid hardly lives in luxury. Wouldn’t someone that venal have become, say, a card shark?
It doesn’t get more believable. Every nun, every priest, every parent is a monster. None have any comprehensible human motives. You’d think that at least some of the Sisters of Mercy believed they were offering mercy, providing shelter to abandoned women in an age when the state did not. Even if Mullan is convinced they did only harm, couldn’t we hear it from their perspective even briefly? We never see a nun display any sincere piety. Even if Mullan can’t see how somebody can fall for that religion malarkey, couldn’t he let a believer speak for herself, just for a moment?
The film’s evil characters are not only one-dimensional, they’re inconsistent. The nuns have a pathological disgust for sex, but when a priest is discovered to have molested one of their charges, they’re inexplicably complacent. This doesn’t make sense, but it fits Mullan’s conviction that the only thing the nuns care about is hurting the girls. Would someone really choose the confined life of a nun for such a reason?
Sister Brigid watches the 1945 film "The Bells of St. Mary’s" with evident joy, but she should have been outraged. In the older film, nuns give their eighth-grade graduates pretty dresses and high heels, and urge them to have fun in high school before even considering life as a nun. One student’s mom is single and has a shady source of income. The priest tells her sympathetically, "We’ll take care of your daughter. You take care of yourself." Mullan’s fictitious Sr. Brigid would *hate* this movie, not beam through her tears.
That’s another thing. "Bells of St. Mary’s" was made in 1945, and "Magdalene Sisters" is set in 1964. Are we supposed to believe that Catholicism became radically *more* rigid in those years, which included Vatican II?
"The Magdalene Sisters" is a work of imagination based on facts, but it’s hard to tell what the facts are, because Mullan is so consumed by his agenda. He is convinced that the nuns were self-righteous, vindictive, and judgmental; he has made a movie that is self-righteous, vindictive, and judgmental. The saddest thing is, he couldn’t think of any honorable reason that a person would provide shelter for women rejected by society. So he imposes on his characters the only motivations that made sense to him: nuns just like to boss the girls, torture and humiliate them, mock their naked bodies, and drive them like slave labor. There may be a whole other dimension to this story, but we’ll have to wait a while to hear it.
You know how, when you see a WW II propaganda film, you wince at the heavy-handed evil characters, the brutal, grunting Germans and shrill Japanese with coke-bottle glasses and splayed teeth? Times lays bare an artist’s hidden agenda. Someday Mullan’s film will look like a highbrow version of "Bad Girls’ Reform School." Then another director can tell the story of the Magdalene laundries, in all its complexity and tragedy.
Imitate the evil nuns of "The Magdalene Sisters" this month and view "The Bells of St. Mary’s." The lasting charm of this classic is in its light touch; it’s a casual, episodic view of a year at a financially strapped parochial school in New York. Bing Crosby, as Fr. O’Malley, is as good-natured and understated as usual, and produces "modern" ideas that are still radical, such as abolishing the grading system rather than discourage kids. The jewel is Ingrid Bergman’s performance as the nun headmistress. Bergman was marvelously subtle actress, and conveys fine shades of emotion with such natural grace that it seems spontaneous. Note here, too, the minimalism of the sets and the unscripted behavior of the children, especially in the charming sequence of the lower grades’ Christmas play. Today’s hyper-realism has to be much more contrived.