A Success Born of Scandal
Controversial 'Magdalene Sisters' Dramatizes Church's Misdeeds
San Francisco Chronicle
Downloaded July 27, 2003
Peter Mullan couldn't have dreamed up better publicity. His movie, "The Magdalene Sisters," was having its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, and Italy's Catholic establishment had loudly condemned it.
A critic for the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano called it "an angry and rancorous provocation" and Turin Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, who admitted he hadn't seen the film, accused Mullan of poisoning the film with an anti- Catholic "agenda."
The object of their wrath, "The Magdalene Sisters," is a fact-based drama about a network of Catholic asylums, active in Ireland until 1996, that imprisoned prostitutes, unwed mothers and "fallen women." Forced to work as unpaid slaves in laundries, the young women -- some rape victims, some guilty of no crime other than being attractive to boys -- were often incarcerated for life.
Survivors report harrowing tales of degradation, physical and sexual abuse. In Cork, Ireland, a mass grave was discovered, but the Sisters of Mercy, which administered the asylums, refuses to disclose the names of the dead.
Mullan, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, says he anticipated denials from the Vatican, but never expected they'd be so careless and non-strategic as to give him mountains of free publicity. In Venice, priests holding video cameras approached audience members, saying, "You are aware that to watch this film is to commit a sin?"
"I was amazed at how dumb they were," says Mullan, 43, a slight, tightly wound Scotsman who divides his career between acting ("Trainspotting," "Braveheart") and directing ("Orphans"). "Absolutely amazed." Thanks to the controversy, Italians showed up in droves for "The Magdalene Sisters" and kept it on box-office charts for 15 weeks. All that for a low-budget indie from Scotland.
The film, set in Dublin between 1964 and 1968, was such a sensation in Italy that it stayed in the headlines for three weeks. Italian reporters were dispatched to Ireland to find women who had survived the Magdalene institutions, and then wrote large exposes running five newspaper pages.
Mullan had touched a nerve. But when "The Magdalene Sisters" opened in Ireland in February, and he braced himself for a torrent of denials, the Catholic Church said nothing. "Absolutely nothing! My theory is that they thought, 'Well, it didn't work in Italy to condemn it, so let's have the people jump to our defense. We'll be discreet and stand back.' "
"Obviously, that never happened." The press coverage was enormous: "A tough,
emotionally loaded and deeply unsettling drama," wrote Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer. "The timing of its release in cinemas around the country couldn't have come at a worse time for the Catholic Church, already desperately trying to come to grips with the fall-out from (revelations on) clerical sex abuse," wrote journalist Miriam Donohue.
When the film opened in Scotland, where Mullan lives with his wife, writer Annie Swann, and their three children, there wasn't a trace of controversy. The spokesman for the Archbishop of Glasgow called the film "painful viewing," but recommended that Catholics see the film, Mullan says, "as an act of contrition, a means of moving forward. So between September and February there's a 180-degree turn in how the church is saying the Catholic community should respond to this film."
Mullan, whose performance in Ken Loach's "My Name is Joe" earned him Best Actor honors at Cannes, was reared in a working-class section of Glasgow. One of eight children born to an alcoholic father, he was Catholic and therefore stigmatized as "Irish" in a Protestant country. Mullan grew up with a sharp sense of social injustice, read Marx and Engels and Karl Jung, and became the first in his family to attend university.
A man of constant motion, Mullan gestures, fidgets, laughs freely and sips from a glass of Merlot during an animated lunch in a downtown San Francisco restaurant. A gregarious man, he loves to talk, speaking in a thick, gravelly Glaswegian burr. The word "Irish" comes out sounding like "OY-rish," "theory" like "THEE-ree," "church" like "charch" and "murder" like "MAH-durr."
Mullan denies that "The Magdalene Sisters" is anti-Catholic. He considers himself a "recovering Catholic," sends his children to Catholic schools and says the target of his film is the abuse of power. "It's about all fundamentalist faiths that think they have the right to oppress young women," he said when accepting his award in Venice.
"The Magdalene Sisters" was inspired, Mullan says, by "Sex in a Cold Climate," a Channel 4 documentary by Steve Humphries, broadcast in 1997. Watching at home one night, Mullan was alarmed to learn of young women working 8 to 10 hours a day, 7 days a week without pay. Upon entry, their hair was shorn, their belongings removed and their names replaced by the names of Catholic saints. No contact with family or the outside world was allowed.
The nuns who operated the asylums lectured on the wages of sin and sexual congress, and yet the girls were sometimes raped by visiting priests and sworn to silence. The power of the church was so strong, Mullan says, and the complicity of the state and the public so widespread, that the truth of the asylums remained an official secret.
Mullan interviewed dozens of survivors and conflated their stories into four characters: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), surrendered to the asylum after being raped at a family wedding; Rose (Dorothy Duff), marked by an illegitimate child that she's not allowed to keep; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a fiery orphan who rebels against brutal authority; and Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a simple girl forced into sexually servicing a priest.
In a part originally set for Vanessa Redgrave, who dropped out for family reasons, Geraldine McEwan plays Sister Bridget, the sinister head of the asylum. Phyllis McMahon, a former nun who actually worked in a Magdalene institution in Galway, Ireland, from 1959 to 1961, plays one of the Magdalene sisters.
"She was our technical adviser -- about the prayers they would use, the length of the rosary, the degree of physical violence," Mullan says. "I was worried about the Crispina story and asked her if the nuns would have the right to put her into a mental asylum without a doctor's authorization. She said, 'Oh, God, it's as you've got in the script. The nuns say, "Take her away" and she's taken away. No questions asked.' "
McMahon also told a story of one crafty girl who feigned insanity to escape a life of imprisonment. Once she was committed to a mental asylum, a psychiatrist examined her, determined she was sane and let her go. Feeling triumphant, the girl moved to London and sent a letter to the Mother Superior at the Magdalene: "Dear bitch from hell," it began.
Although the Catholic Church has apologized for the brutal history of the Magdalene asylums, Mullan says, "they need to follow the apology with hardcore information (about the survivors) that we then have to sift through."
Having worked on "The Magdalene Sisters" for three and a half years years --
he gave up lucrative acting jobs in "Billy Elliot" and "Gangs of New York" to make the film -- Mullan is harsh, unforgiving in his assessment of the Catholic Church and its response to the Magdalene revelations.
"The church still works in this bizarre policy of a man who just can't stop knockin' down kids with his car. He apologizes eventually for every kid he knocked down, but you never get to ask him, 'What speed were you driving at? Have you done this before? Were you drinking?'
"The church is the guy in the car that says, 'I said I'm sorry. That's enough, isn't it?' And then drives off."
E-mail Edward Guthmann at email@example.com.
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