Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #1

Re: The Magdalene Sisters (2003)

You ask why all of the nuns connected with the laundry depicted in the film were ‘bad apples?’ Consider the phrase ‘corrupt culture’ — how long would a ‘good apple’ have lasted in such an environment? Would a nice young novice have stayed in the abusive environment, or would she have either (1) left the horrid place, or (2) accepted the establishment as her superiors in judgement, and eventually become part of the system? Because the possibility of lots of nice people working comfortably within an abusive system, doesn’t work.

My sincere thanks for your thoughtful comments and your honest interaction with my arguments. I can’t say for sure that you are the first reader to take issue with my Magdalene Sisters article in a thoughtful way (there’ve been any number of angry replies of the other sort), but you might be.

Very briefly, the mere fact that all of the nuns are “bad apples” is not exactly my problem with the film. I think I could have accepted that, as far as it goes. (As an aside, I do think your (1) and (2) propositions raise interesting dramatic possibilities — a young nun leaving the order in disgust; the corruption of a malleable young nun — but I certainly wouldn’t fault Mullan for not telling a story he didn’t set out to tell.)

No. My problem with the film is that in the real world, even with bad apples, there are still little bits and streaks of something other than sheer rottenness. Even the most heartless Nazi or Stalinist will still have an occasional flicker of conscience, a moment of moral discomfort, self-examination, or introspection, a flash of sympathetic identification with another human being in duress, even just a moment of geniality and expansiveness in which his whim for the moment favors the subjects of his oppression. Any number of Holocaust films have dared to show varying levels of moral complexity even in Nazis. This is what serious moral drama does, because this is human reality.

Mullan can’t muster this. He can’t even gesture in the direction of moral complexity. The closest thing to what we would ordinarily call humanity (in a positive sense) in any of the nuns is Sr. Bridget’s smiling comments about the cinema. Yet this is only humanity in an aesthetic mode, not a moral mode. (The young priest playing the bodhrán in the opening scene is another example of aesthetic rather than moral humanity.)

I really think the problem with the film is that (a) as Mullan has admitted, he wrote the screenplay in a fit of white-hot rage, which is not the best frame of mind for creative judgment, and (b) Mullan is personally anti-Catholic — which is not to deny that even an angry anti-Catholic artist might manage to transcend these issues and produce a morally serious work that acknowledges the moral complexity of even very flawed human beings. Only that Mullan himself didn’t do this in fact.

Had Mullan managed a level of moral complexity, I would be able to recommend the film, and would do so in fact. The subject is a legitimate one, and deserving of treatment. But I really think that Mullan’s film descends into cheap manipulation that trivializes the seriousness of his topic.

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