Magdalene Sisters

I rank writer/director Peter Mullan's "Magdalene Sisters" the most violent film of 2003.

I rank writer/director Peter Mullan's "Magdalene Sisters" the most violent film of 2003. Is it my Catholic upbringing that makes me so sure? You bet! Not since seeing "Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" have I lost this much sleep about my tumultuous affair with the Pope's world.

In 1960's Ireland began a reign of terror for thousands of young Irish girls who were shuffled off to reside and work at the so-called Magdalene Asylums, a thriving laundry business run by the Sisters of Mercy. These tough nuns are depicted in "Magdalene Sisters" as martinets bent on removing even the hint of the devil from girls who have been sent there for sins ranging from flirting to fornicating, with giving up newborn babies the usual punishment/remedy.

Mullan tells the story by focusing on three unfortunates who are sent against their wills but with the complicity of their families. "Abandonment" is not too strong a word.

Mullan makes the girls as plain as possible but pretty in a non-Hollywood way. They are either slowly going insane from the rigid Dickensian workhouse, or they are obsessed about escaping, an act fraught with danger and impossibility.

The film belongs to Geraldine McEwan's Sister Bridget, a cold-hearted Mother Superior who verbally and physically abuses the girls over trifles. McEwan plays her in the Louise- Fletcher Nurse Ratched tradition by keeping the sneering to a minimum, thereby ratcheting the terror up notches with the slightest understated response. McEwan deserves an award for playing the inscrutable sister closest to my recollection of terrifying nuns.

The Sisters of St. Joseph who programmed me for a lifetime of obedience to authority and sexual misunderstandings were not the same extreme disciplinarians as Mullan, who may be overstating the case against the nuns. My sisters' rigorous education helped me obtain a Ph.D., and their mental torture extended only as far as standing me up in front of the sixth-grade class to accuse me of being a "dirty thing" for holding a girl's hand. Yet Mullan has caught the fear I felt for my soul and my inability to avoid punishment even for my thoughts. To a girl who protests, "I've never been with any lads ever," Sister Bridget simply responds, "But you'd like to, wouldn't you?"

Even the smallest natural affliction is a playground for torture: As one unfortunate girl in this film is advised by another about her post-natal painful breasts, "The nuns go crazy if they see ya leakin'."

The Taliban has reminded us recently that oppression of the weak is a constant human stain; Peter Mullan has brilliantly reinforced that truism.