The Magdalene Sisters (2002) – dir. by Peter Mullan
My friend Bruno from Brazil and I were going to watch a downloaded file of “Breathless” by Jean-Luc Godard last night on the laptop playing through the TV monitor.
But this film by Peter Mullan was on the telly when we came in and we let it carry on. Its subject is the same as “Philomena” with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan – the girls locked up in convents in Ireland and forced to work as slave labour in laundries—often for the rest of their lives—that that mercenary church made a lot of money from. A tragedy that did not cease til 1996 when the last laundry closed.
Abandoned in there by families for the most minor petty offences or for having innocent sex, or for being raped and/ or being pregnant – or even for being just too attractive and thereby getting the attention of the opposite sex – the Church then stole their babies and sold them for profit.
“Philomena” is a forgiving and conciliatory film, palatable for a wide audience. Its message could be said to be that being twisted up by hatred negates love, negates the reason for caring about the plight of those who suffer injustice in the first place. It destroys us.
Laudable. An admirable sentiment.
“The Magdalen Sisters” by Peter Mullan, such a passionate actor/director, is very, very different. It is damning and assays to show the horror of what it might have been like for thirty thousand women who suffered at the hands of pious, authoritarian and repressed nuns and priests in an inward, backward-looking society; for nigh on two hundred and fifty years – if Wikipedia is to be believed.
The perverse and self-deceiving spirituality used to browbeat, humiliate and incarcerate the bodies and minds of these young women is powerfully portrayed.
The horror of the vision of stunted, sanctimonious children with the power of life and death over others is hard to contemplate – not least because of the Church’s vision of the universe echoing that of the powers of the cinematic medium, the secular vision factory conjuring monastic, sequestered worlds, perfect dramatic narrative product in privileged fictional spaces. The greedy entertainment business – with all the procured talents at its disposal. Not to mention echoes of past experiences of “educators” and the politically driven.
It might be said the film could strike terror into the heart of anyone that has experienced an ounce of secular spirituality, of the sense of the sacred, at the hands of natural beauty, at the hands of music, of poetry, or of dramatic narrative itself.
Or even at the hands of moments of harmonious communal co-existence with others.
Such that we question whether the spiritual, the sacred, the sense of higher self, the capacity to imagine and to empathise, is not some collectively constructed—or manipulated—dream with no author.
It is also a more nuanced film than “Philomena” despite being much more intense – the girls seem not crudely written and played as victims, angels and heroes; or ciphers.
The lack of sentimentality—like the chocolate-boxed treacliness that mars “Philomena” —seems to make it more believable, it gets you on-side.
Unless: I have just swallowed a cause (and a generic melodrama) whole – uncritically identifying with, and swooning at, a sense of both liberation from injustice and the execution of its portrayal.
Please excuse me if you are already over-familiar with both the film and the issue.
Years ago I did not want to see it, didnt want to see a serious issue deformed by exploitative, sensationalising melodrama or tub-thumping. Especially at the hands of a streetwise, Marxist, and thespian bruiser like Mullan. I had been well aware of the issue through playing Irish music with Irish people.
In fact I think I had thought the film might be akin to being trapped eternally in a room – or a Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Late Late Show TV studio – with Sinead O’Connor (and Gay Byrne) while she alternately made me weep with heartfelt emotion and solidarity, using her undeniably beautiful voice (and her banshee one), huge oval eyes, and songs and incomparable acting skills, and utterly terrified me with shrill, megalomaniacal rants against the Catholic church as if she were The One, having arrived on this earth to lead the socialist and feminist charge and worshipful, glazed-eyed congregation against the patriarchy and the Vatican and the bourgeois hegemon.
To make us participate in a shared, collective, melodramatically retrograde fantasy authored by her – powered by the kerosene of very real concerns.
You’d get more benefit and entertainment watching the portentous, pop-philosophical pulp of The Matrix and pondering how it does or does not demonstrate Plato’s philosophical idea of the Cave in dramatic form.
For what it’s worth, I had been quite ordinarily pathologically suspicious of the cinematic exploitation of political and social issues like this, suspicious of the use of Art for political ends or vice versa, whether cynical, ingenuous or self-deceived.
Terrified by anticipation of a spectre of a circus of interests – whether religious, secular, politically left or right, well-meaning, naive, cynical, creepy, or sententious. The spectre loomed of more righteous bullies and tyros—with personal agendas and social and political ambitions—speaking for or through victims, seeking approbation and influence or money or heroism on the back of others’ suffering; feeding on a subject such as abuse in the Catholic Church, cheapening lives and experience and memory, stealing them, using them, in a hysterical maelstrom of image and narrative representation, crescendoing to a deafening pitch that magically materialises a fully formed, atonal serialist orchestral symphonic poem – as silencing, as imprisoning, as self-serving, as that mercenary Church itself.
Nikola Tamindzic Untitled #241 (Eating a Barnett Newman)
Or a Hollywood melodrama.
And then there is the risk—with such distrust and cynicism—of betraying and disposing of just those kind of instincts and vulnerable people that have been so cruelly betrayed already.
I did feel Mullan’s film has both enough edge and uplift in it – as some of the girls turn the tables on these mediaeval, hypocritical, childish barbarians – to be inspiring. It aimed and landed its punches without having me twist up inside with strangulated, glass-cased smorzandoing bleats of “fake!”, “exploitation!”, “cliche!”, “melodrama!”.
Or: “so f****** what ?”.
I am glad I saw it.
One of the most poignant, or damning, or tragic or frightening aspects of the film, making you feel even more an acute dismay, is represented by a scene in which a character, having mentally separated herself, having drawn a line between herself and her torturers/captors, maintains that they are not “true Christians”.
Escaping a narrow passage to grandeur: The Sublime is Wow – Anna Sokolova
Nature and vacuums and abhorrence.
Bored of the Flies.
What a big bad, naughty, perverse, squeaky-dirty and tricksterish world, rubbing its hands!
How easy it is to cut the naughty monsters down to size with another common sense narrative. Like this one.
What a big, big, silly fractious family of articles and values we are.
That was always one of the big attractions to me about Irish music (apart from fabulous instrumental dance music, beyond the sweaty, hot little grasp of language or politics) when I was playing it: the sense of community and being part of a big family. The sense of belonging, the sense of something bigger than oneself that knew better and that one could trust, giving the bum’s rush to a whine of self interest out the door right up the passage of its own diminuendo.
Or petty, global grandiosity.
I got the same feeling when I went to Belfast with the Troops Out Movement in the Eighties – staying with families, listening to people, listening to stories, feeling the warmth and solidarity.
Feeling the hand of plangent yet harmonious communal co-existence with others.
The hot little grasp of fearless clarity and wisdom in a place of terror and violence – things that can seem to bring us closer to fundamentals.
Barnett Newman’s Onement VI