The Magdalene Sisters (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In 1964 Ireland, women were sent to Magdalene Laundries, asylums where “sinners” were institutionalized to atone for their so-called indiscretions. The act of doing laundry and cleaning the floors symbolized their willingness of washing away their “perverse” lifestyle.
Written and directed by Peter Mullan, “The Magdalene Sisters” follows four women as they try to endure various dehumanization from the nuns. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped but her family is more concerned with the fact that she is no longer a virgin; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) enjoys the attention she receives from men and is deemed to be a whore; while Rose (Dorothy Duffy) and Crispina (Eileen Walsh) have had a children out of wedlock.
The film attempts to capture a time that was by planting itself in detail. For example, the camera pays careful attention in the women’s act of washing clothes with their bare hands. Is their manner of scrubbing a way of communicating rage, frustration, apathy, defeat? Their silence, since they are forbidden to speak with each other, underlines their miserable situation further: a lot of the women look detached from their work as if their minds are somewhere else other than where they are, a select few are fueled by anger that goes largely unexpressed, while others question why they are even held captive in the first place. And then there are those who actually want to be recognized by the overseeing nun as hard workers as if they’re dogs to be given treat if they perform like the way Master commands.
As much as the film places emphasis on images, it is also an auditory experience. The sound of scrubbing, whether it be the on the floor or dirty clothes, becomes unbearable. The cruelties shown on screen are, to say the least, maddening. These women are led to believe that if they are “good” or “pure” enough, they will be released and become well-functioning members of society. This promise is a mirage. Instead, the women are pushed to their breaking point. If they do anything wrong, whether it be small or significant, they are beaten. Their punishments rarely match “crimes” they have committed. Nor does it matter, really. As long as the women are hurt in some way, the nuns see it as one step toward redemption. The blows are not solely physical. If the inmates try to escape, their hair is cut off. The nuns believe that if the women feel ugly, they will not want to be seen by the world.
The performances are uniformly outstanding. Noone injects a certain slyness to her character and I suspected her story to go certain way but the material proves smart. Bernadette was actually the one I rooted for most because of her resilience from the nuns’ senseless humiliation. One I’ll remember for a long time is the scene in which two nuns judge which of the girls have the smallest and biggest breasts. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, they start to judge which person has the most pubic hair. One of the nuns has the audacity to call it a game. The way the camera scans the girls’ faces made me think of the most representative Holocaust films.
The lead nun, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), is a villain with complexity. I was glad that the picture offers a few shots which suggest that maybe she is aware that what they are doing to the girls is completely immoral. She knows the girls’ histories. No amount of scriptures from the Bible can persuade her, or anybody, from what she inherently feels is wrong. “The Magdalene Sisters,” I think, is a commentary about evil. In here, the evil is executed by individuals who consider themselves pious but fail to see the hypocrisy–and unmitigated sadism–in their actions.