Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #4

Re: The Magdalene Sisters (2003)

Based on the interviews shown in Sex in a Cold Climate, the documentary film which inspired The Magdalene Sisters, I think your review is a little hard on the film drama and a little soft on the folks behind these institutions. There’s been so much harm done in the name of religion over the centuries it’s almost unbelievable, yet films like these serve as a lesson that the road to hell may indeed be paved with good intentions. The religious orders that ran these homes bear total responsibility for their actions and their treatment of the “inmates.” What happened happened, and to imply that it was the actions of a few “bad apples” does a disservice to the estimated 30,000 women who suffered and died in these hell holes.

Your assessment that my article comes across as “a little hard” on the film drama and “a little soft” on those responsible is at least a reasonable take, and one I can live with. For what it’s worth, I think your email may be “a little hard” on my article, for example by suggesting that I attributed the abuse in the asylums to “a few ‘bad apples.’” Although I did use the phrase “bad apples,” my point, far from suggesting that the abuse was the aberrant work of a few cranks in a basically caring environment, was on the contrary that truly horrific crimes can be institutional and daily realities even when the people running things aren’t all one-dimensionally evil villains. That, indeed, is precisely the horror, and it’s a horror The Magdalene Sisters fails to grapple with.

I stand by the substance of my critique of the film, and certainly I unequivocally condemn abuse anywhere, especially the Church, as well as the complicity of those who permit and protect it. I tried to be as fair and dispassionate as I could regarding the film. I acknowledged up-front the in-principle legitimacy of (a) the charges of abuse in the Magdalene asylums, and of (b) making a movie about it. I think the film does a significant disservice to its own cause as well as its dramatic impact by its prejudicially black-and-white (or “black and more black” as I wrote at the time) depiction of all religious and clerics as all evil, all the time. The guilt of church leaders and religious does not justify cinematic anti-Catholicism. I am in no way defending the guilty.

Those are the facts as I see them. The tone and nuance of my article readers must judge for themselves. I tried to be nuanced; it’s possible that I should have tried harder.

Incidentally, sweeping statements like “There’s been so much harm done in the name of religion over the centuries it’s almost unbelievable” tend to raise a red flag for me, not only because of all the good that has been done in the name of religion, but even more because the almost unbelievable amount of harm done in the name of irreligious ideologies (e.g., various Marxist regimes). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that people with power have abused it in all kinds of situations, and leave it at that.

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