Light Shed on Church Asylums' Dark Deeds

Reported in the LA Times, Section D, September, 7, 2002

A drama about practices in now-closed Catholic institutions draws praise while filmmaker sparks anger by comparing nuns to 'Taliban militants.’

Venice Film Festival



VENICE, Italy-Peter Mullan, the Scottish director, screenwriter and actor, is someone who doesn't shy away from controversy. So he knew that criticizing the Catholic Church in Italy, of all countries, would attract enormous attention.

 So it has turned out. Mullen has attended the 59th Venice Interna­tional Film Festival, where his fea­ture "The Magdalene Sisters," which he wrote and directed, was in competition. Set in rural Ireland in 1964, the film deals with a Mag­dalene asylum, one of that coun­try's supposedly benevolent reli­gious institutions.

These asylums were run by Catholic nuns, and took in poor girls, some of whom had had il­legitimate children they had been forced to give up for adoption. Other girls had been labeled as promiscuous; some were sent to the asylums for little more than flirtatious behavior.

The nuns' mission was to put these young women back on the path to righteousness. But the treatment they meted out was often harsh and cruel. The girls often worked 364 days a year in prison-like conditions; typically they worked long hours in an asy­lum laundry. Misdemeanors were rewarded with beatings. They were brutalized and humiliated. Theirs was a life resembling slavery. The last of these asylums closed down in 1996.

"The Magdalene Sisters," an an­gry, emotional film, has been among the best-received by audi­ences and critics at this year's Venice festival, which ends Sunday.

But Mullan raised the stakes of controversy at one press confer­ence earlier this week when he compared the activities of some Magdalene nuns in the 1960s to those of "Taliban militants." His re­mark made him headline news in the Italian press.

"Well, I stand by those com­ments," Mullan, 41, said in an in­terview. Smiling mischievously, he added: "I knew that [comparison] would be an incendiary device."

‘I’d Rather Burn in Hell'

He is not a man to shrink from a public fight: When his British dis­tributors withdrew backing from his first feature film, "Orphans" (which went on to win four prizes in Venice in 1998), he castigated them for wanting to change his script. "I'd rather burn in hell," he said at the time.

He recalled that he was in the middle of cutting "The Magdalene Sisters" when Sept. 11 happened. "Suddenly, everyone knew about

the Taliban. But we [he and his producer Frances Higson] had been demonstrating against the Taliban for three years. We'd been

exchanging e-mails, signing peti­tions and supporting benefits, all because of the way women suf­fered under the Taliban.

"The more I looked into the Magdalenes, there really seemed to be not that great a difference be­tween the Taliban and the Catholic Clurch in Ireland in terms of the treatment of women. I stress the phrase 'not that great.' [With the Taliban] it seems more extreme. , But then when you look at the Magdalenes, you wonder: Is it more extreme? And I'll stand by that, in relation to the Magdalenes in 1960s Ireland - it's obviously not the case now, and hasn't been the case for 10 or 15 years.

"But just in relation to women, it's not that huge an imaginative leap to see the connection between the Taliban and the Catholic Church.”­

Mullan has lias chosen to dramatize the conditions in the Magdalene asylums by tracing the fictional stories of four young girls (all played by virtually unknown ac­tresses) who enter such an asylum. One has protested that she was raped by a young cousin, another had a child out of wedlock, a third simply hung around boys in the schoolyard, while the fourth, a simple-minded innocent, de­scends into madness while inside the institution.

Best known for playing the title role in Ken Loach's film "My Name Is Joe," Mullan takes a minor role as the brutal father of a fifth girl who tries to escape the asylum.

The British stage actress Geraldine McEwan plays the villainous and sometimes sadistic presiding sis­ter.

Mullan, who was raised in a Catholic family in Scotland, was inspired to write the story after having seen a TV documentary on the subject.

"I was channel-hopping one night, and came across this pro­gram, Sex in a Cold Climate, on [British TV's] Channel 4. I saw these Irish women telling all these stories. One said: 'I was too pretty, that's why they locked me up.'

"I think the reason it stayed with me for so long and I wanted to write it was that I felt so angry. I didn't know much about these places. I knew there had been a similar one in Glasgow, and that there had been a riot there in 1964. But when I researched it, it turned out it was a one-off [one of a kind]. And it was a Protestant institution, run by the Church of Scotland.

"At one point, I had considered making the film in Scotland, but I thought it would be better in Ire­land, because Ireland's a theocracy, and [these abuses were] happen­ing everywhere. So in the film you can indict the system more, rather than give [the church] a get-out clause."

To prepare for writing the story. Mullan talked to nuns who had served inside Magdalene asylums, and to young women who had sur­vived them.

"I heard some really terrible sto­ries, stories far worse than the events depicted in the film. It got to me so deeply. When you come across a story like that, it's the op­posite of what I was led to believe. It's so unlike the Ireland I was brought up to believe in. Ireland was a kind of promised land for Scottish Catholics."

He made a conscious decision not to put the most extreme stories of abuse he heard into the film. "One reason I didn't include the really awful stuff is because I know the church may come at me and say: 'It's lies, you've exaggerated.' And I could say: 'No, I've done the opposite.' Another reason is that as a filmmaker, you're having to think: If I put all the horrors in there, it may make me feel better, but you need to take the audience along with you, and not com­pletely turn them off. If nobody sees the film, I've lost the audi­ence."

'A Prison Film'

Judging by the reception in Venice to "The Magdalene Sisters," that has not happened. Audiences cheered each time one of the girls tried to escape or found a way to rebel against the nuns.

Mullan also made a conscious decision to steer away from the is­sue of homosexuality inside the asylum: "When I started writing, I was aware that I was writing a prison film. And in prison films, there's always a homosexual scene, a fight scene and a dining-room scene, when someone throws a plate against a wall. So I was aware that in the prison genre there was a minefield of cliché. If you went there, you'd better do it either in a way that's not been done before or one that progresses the narrative.

"I was certainly interested in whether there were lesbian affairs. But the vast majority of people from the asylums that I spoke to told me they were too exhausted to have time for sex. It was 364 days a year working in that laundry, and at the end of each day, you slept."

So far, the Catholic Church has remained silent about "The Mag­dalene Sisters," though Mullan ex­pects the film to receive criticism when it plays in Catholic countries. (It opens in Ireland in November, while U.S. distributors have been bidding for rights in Venice.) At the festival, a lone priest was reported to have waited outside one screen­ing, holding a placard that stated it was a sin even to watch the movie.

Mullan could not resist linking the abuses he highlights in "The Magdalene Sisters" to current sex­ual abuse scandals in the church. "I can't think of a time when the Catholic Church had a lower es­teem than it has now," he said. "What began as the odd scandal in the 1980s is now pandemic. The church knows it's going to have to face up to all the things it's done.

"The church may look at my film and say these things never hap­pened. But frankly, I'm not that good a dramatist. I couldn't have made it up. And there'll be people lining up to say it happened to them."