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The Magdalene Sisters

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
The Magdalene Sisters
from Film Forum, 10/03/02

The Magdalene Sisters, directed by Peter Mullan, picked up the prestigious Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. It is based on the true story of an Irish reform school for wayward young ladies, where residents were forced into a sort of slave labor and abused mentally and physically.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is voicing objections: "To be sure, conditions were harsh by today's standards but they were not uncommon in their day. Historians have recounted how Protestant-run institutions were similar."

But Peter Malone, author of several books on film and faith and president of SIGNIS, the international Catholic association for communication, defends the film. "Mullan … has made an expertly-crafted but grim film. The film will certainly cause sadness in audiences who have been disturbed by the experiences of the 1990s, the revelations, the court cases, and sentences. It will cause sadness for those who have positive memories of education by sisters and for those who want to see pleasant images of the church and church personnel. However, this story, which makes more impact perhaps because it is being seen rather than merely being read, is no less true than many of the recent stories that have been reported even in the Catholic press. Most audiences will appreciate, as they would with a film criticizing the police or politicians, that the majority of members of the profession did not act in this way. The Magdalene Sisters can be seen as part of an honest examination of conscience by the church and a request for repentance, an expression of sorrow and an apology, something which Pope John Paul II has exemplified and encouraged in recent years."

In this time when the news is focused on gross abuses that have taken place behind the concealing walls of churches, is it wise to claim defamation? Better we face up to the sins of the past, acknowledge that the church is made up of sinners, and point to the true source of cleansing, forgiveness, healing, and hope.

The film played over the weekend at the New York Film Festival. More reviews can be found here.

from Film Forum, 08/14/03

It is based on a true story, won last year's Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival, and was snatched up by Miramax for distribution. And now that it is opening in theatres across the country, mainstream critics are raving that The Magdalene Sisters is one of the year's best films.

But not everyone is so pleased. Director Peter Mullan's film about the abuses suffered by young women at the hands of some harsh and unforgiving Irish Catholics has the Catholic League and many other religious press media critics calling it exaggerated, unfair, and cruel in its own right.

According to The Washington Post, the Walt Disney Company's board of directors received an appeal from the president of the Catholic League last September. William Donohue demanded that the company break off ties with Miramax. He continues to insist that the movie is driven by an anti-Catholic agenda. But a Miramax spokesman showed that the company would not budge. "The film portrays something that actually happened," he said.

Movies that vilify people of faith usually get mixed reactions from the religious media. Frequently there are some who take offense, preferring to have believers shown in a flattering light. Others recognize that religious folk are as capable of sin as everyone else, and find honesty to be the best policy. In the case of The Magdalene Sisters, almost every critic agrees that "the Maggies," as they were called, were indeed mistreated by the church. But they also agree that the movie unnecessarily exaggerates the situation, rigging the movie to provoke audiences toward outrage instead of productive, balanced, and redemptive understanding.

Movieguide's critic says the film "is a painful expression of a twisted system. That this film was made to show the injustice and cruelty of the asylums is understandable in that they should never happen again, but it is regrettable that the many good deeds of godly, kind, self-sacrificing sisters are not shown. Regrettably, this movie will turn many people who see it away from the loving God who wants to save them from this evil." The film is given a rating of "Abhorrent."

Steve Parish (The Film Forum) calls protesters daft. "There are plenty of feel-good movies in theatres," he says. "But if you need to feel bad, particularly at the inhumanity of the Christian church—in this case Irish Catholicism—then The Magdalene Sisters will certainly work."

Finding himself harassed and accused of anti-church attitudes, Rex Reed (New York Observer) defends his admiration for the film: "Why is it that every time I write objectively about movies or plays or museums courageous enough to take on religious infractions, question the sanity of religious myths and mind control, or treat anything involving the Catholic church with a sense of curiosity or humor, I am suddenly deluged with volumes of organized hate mail? When do these people get a life and focus on the real world? The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for … [Magdalene Sisters] is a great film that deserves genuflection. For others, it may be disturbing enough to turn church suppers into heavenly hash."

Film critic Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) responded to this article in an online discussion: "The [Roman] Catholic Church has shown itself able to deal with decidedly mixed and even highly critical depictions of hierarchy and religious figures. The Vatican list of notable important films includes such hierarchy-indicting titles as The Mission, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Andrei Rublev. Somehow I can't imagine many other groups officially endorsing films similarly depicting their leadership in such critical terms. That Magdalene Sisters has been denounced on Vatican radio and in the Vatican newspaper, where these other films have been met with openness despite taking a hard look at members of the hierarchy, is due, not to a knee-jerk reaction against all negative depictions, [but] to the viciousness, exaggeration, and lack of nuance or moral honesty in this particular depiction."

David Sterritt (The Christian Science Monitor) disagrees: "The Magdalene Sisters is a pungent, powerful film that points an accusing finger not at religious beliefs but at flawed human institutions. It also targets social and cultural mores that are almost medieval in their patriarchal bias against girls and women."

(Film Forum earlier noted the film in September 2002, and Philip Yancey recently commented on it in one of his Christianity Today columns.)

from Film Forum, 08/21/03

This week, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) posted his in-depth review of Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters. "Mullan's black-and-white (or rather black and more black) depiction of clergy and religious is absolute: Not a single character in a wimple or a roman collar ever manifests even the slightest shred of kindness, compassion, human decency, or genuine spirituality; not one has the briefest instant of guilt, regret or inner conflict over the energetic, sometimes cheerfully brutal sadism and abuse that pervades the film."

from Film Forum, 08/28/03

Another religious press film critic has joined the chorus of harsh criticism for Peter Mullan's Catholic-bashing film The Magdalene Sisters.

Frederica Matthews-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) speaks out against the film's exaggerated and obvious bias against Catholics: "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."

If you are interested in the film, you may want to revisit Phillip Yancey's thoughts on "the Maggies," which were posted back in May.

from Film Forum, 09/18/03

Peter T. Chattaway reviews The Magdalene Sisters this week, a movie "far more interested in provoking a sense of outrage than in creating genuine characters. I would certainly criticize the film as bad drama, bad art, and maybe even bad history. But I am not so sure I can dismiss the film altogether. The church does have its own sins to repent of—and while the characters in this film often did not feel real to me, the abuses that transpired between them did."