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Cinema Signal:

Blowing the Whistle on the Christian Church in America:
The Hypocrisy and Double Standards Exposed


. "The Magdalene Sisters"

The world is becoming more sensitive and humanistic. What was perpetrated upon human beings in many societies as recently as the 1960's sends a chill up one's spine today. This film recounts 3 true stories of women put away into the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland during that period -- a place so demeaning to its charges that prison life comes to mind. In fact, the present day protections for the worst kind of murderers outstrip common practice in these institutions that hid their abuses behind a veil of religion, in this case Catholicism, where hypocrisy has found fertile ground.

Three victims of injustice are focused on to represent the hundreds of the unwanted that fell into the imprisonment by the nuns of the system. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped at a family gathering by her cousin. When she reports it to her older sister the account is transmitted to the parents of the family. Instead of beating the chops out of the rapist, Margaret is summarily sent to the Magdalene lock up. This served as justice.

Bernadette's (Nora-Jane Noone) story is different. A rather brash and needful girl, she flirts with boys hanging out over her school's yard, even lingering in their attentions while the rest of the school goes back to class. This doesn't go unnoticed by the administration, and she's soon packed off to join Margaret.

Finally Rose, whose family can't accept her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, is intimidated by a priest to give up the child for adoption, opening the door to the Asylum as penance for her sin.

We are aghast at the lack of humankindness behind the walls of the place, where beatings, cruelties and deprivations are the themes of the day -- everyday. At the peak of the institutional policies of dread is Sister Bridget, skillfully played by Geraldine McEwan as the wicked witch of the dungeon -- a sister of unmercy not unlike Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It seems that giving the wrong people a position of trust and custodianship turns too often into the application of sadistic power.

Misery is the theme and there's little escape from it during the time depicted, though end credits inform us of the fates of the women subsequent to their releases. This does little, however, to relieve what is a depressing visit with the helpless. While we experience the helplessness, and while the purpose of the film is clear, the story telling is as spiritless and uncompelling as asylum life.

The performances are earnest and sympathetic, at times gutsy, but doesn't break us out of story constraints.

In an example of outrageously poor choice, writer-director Peter Mullan has a mentally impaired inmate, who has been regularly seduced by a priest, scream at him when he's "outed," "You are not a man of god" repeatedly. You might think she repeats it 3 or 4 times to make the point but Mullan has her scream it more like 20 or 25 times until you're frantically looking for the nearest exit.

All in all, a worthy, if dull effort which leaves us feeling we've been assigned to a lecture whose delivery is unequal to the content.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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