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This review is from: The Magdalene Sisters (DVD)
This is a necessary and valuable work of art. Not because of any great characters, or acting, or story line or most of the attributes we commonly associate with a great movie; but, like some of Kubrick's greatest work, this film shows in sharp focus the extremities of the human experience in a particular context, in this case the intolerance of a primitive society and it's devastating effects on human lives.
The place is Ireland, the time the early 1960's. Like most primitive societies, the Ireland of this time was a deeply patriarchal society, something we are introduced to very quickly; Margaret, a victim of in-bred viciousness, is the one who takes the rap while her raping cousin is left to return drinking with his buddies. Bernadette is seen flirting with boys at the schoolyard gates, who probably return the next day, oblivious to the fact she is gone. And with Patricia, who has a child out of wedlock, there is no male figure at all, he is completely gone, his presence hinted at only by the infant she is shamed into giving up against every one of her instincts. In all cases, the same basic device is employed; the female is seen as the danger and thus eliminated, while the males continue their lives as before, registering a slight blip if any thing at all. A very clear picture of a society in the grip of an extreme 'jezebel' complex emerges, one where female sexuality is seen as the cause of trouble and promptly extinguished.
So the girls end up in a Magdalene Asylum pretty quickly and what they experience is as effective and brutal a system of elimination as the most stringent communist society, or the most extreme fundamentalism. It is in fact a highly effective combination; the girls are indoctrinated and brainwashed as well as possible, and at the same time are turned into a clockwork laundering factory. The intolerance of the society for female sexuality is turned into an effective money making machine by the very church that fosters that intolerance.
The pace of the movie, after the three girls end up entering the Magdalene Asylum, is unrelentingly grim, and succeeding events serve to build up a portrait of the human spirit slowly being crushed. This is thrown into sharp relief towards the end, when, after Margaret has been retrieved by her brother, both Bernadette and Patricia attempt a daring escape; if it seems a bit implausible, it's almost necessary, otherwise what the viewer has experienced is too dark, too hopeless. The biographies we read of the girls at the very end serve to show how their experiences mark their entire lives. In one case, perhaps the most tragic of all, that of Crispina, it directly leads to her life ending in an insane asylum. How, I will leave that for your viewing.
Watch this movie and learn. It's not really about great acting or directing, and you will not "enjoy" it, but you will gain a vivid insight into the dark, primitive, totalitarian oppression that one of Europe's modern societies has thankfully quickly (yet disturbingly recently) come out from underneath.
By the way, if this seems critical of Ireland, I was born into 1960s Ireland. I know. I also want to be clear that this is not critical of everything Irish, but one aspect, the intolerance of female sexuality in Ireland of that time. Nor is it intended to be critical of the Catholic church in general; there are many societies where catholicism is the main religion, and female sexuality is overtly celebrated and displayed (Brazil, Cuba come to mind, though I should add that I've never actually been there). And let me also add that demonization of the female figure, the 'jezebel complex', is a common theme in many societies; but, it was applied with a particularly totalitarian ruthlessness in 1950s and 60s Ireland, in a way that I have always been slightly baffled by. Kudos to Peter Mullan for a stunningly vivid portrait of it.
Also, Peter Mullan is a complete genius, I urge anyone to check out anything he's ever been remotely involved in; "My Name is Joe", "Raining Stones"... It's often grim and tragic, but I'm hard pressed to think of a better or more sympathetic conveyor of the human experience.