The setting of these two films is Ireland, a country in which the Roman Catholic Church does seem to run the opinions and activities of the state. A short preview of the two movies will suffice at this point, before a critique of the same.
The Magdalene Sisters, by Peter Mullan, is one of the most powerful films screened in Ireland. It is renowned for its acuity in its closeness to reality in representing the issues that plague Ireland due to the hold of the church and won the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion Award in 20303. .It is a movie portraying the utter brutality with which the "fallen women" in Ireland were treated at the hands of the Church in the name of atoning for their 'sins'.
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'Fallen women' are depicted in the movie by four women- Bernadette (an orphan) who is considered 'too flirtatious', Margaret (raped by a cousin), Rose and Crispina, both of whom had love children. They represent the reasons why women's families thought that they had 'fallen', thus resulting to sending them to the church's laundries. There, they were subjected to slavery, working till the obscene hours of the night, beaten, degraded and suffer sexual abuse. This type of treatment drives some of them into insanity (sister Crispina).
Apparently, imprisonment is not only physical-by the walls of the laundries- but also psychological. The women are social rejects. Nobody wants them outside those walls. One of the women escapes and is brought back to the laundries after a thrashing by her unforgiving, brutal father. Bernadette manages to escape but is in constant fear of the cops as well as nuns in the streets, thinking they will throw her back into servitude. Others realized there was nowhere to go even if they managed an escape and therefore stayed on lockdown.
The second film, Lamb, by Colin Gregg, stars Liam Neeson as Brother Michael Lamb. He is a new, naïve teacher in a Roman orphanage. He does not know "the ropes", so to speak. However, his uncorrupted heart is quick to realize the brutality with which the boys in the orphanage are treated with. With particular interest in 10-year-old Owen Kane, the most troublesome boy in the school. At one point, the Headmaster, Brother Benedict, severely punishes Owen for a crime Lamb is not ready to believe Owen committed due to his utter denial (Holden 1995). Fed up with the institution and unable to stomach the brutality he keeps witnessing, Lamb kidnaps Owen by good faith and heart, and travels under aliases as father and son.
Although circumstances eventually lead to the drowning of Owen by Lamb (who saw it as an act of kindness due to the boy's seizures of epilepsy), the film does capture the emotions of the viewer, causing one to feel pain, frustration and remorse for the situations facing orphans in Ireland. It also puts one in the shoes of Lamb, who had to trudge his way trying to be a father to Owen, going to the extent of sleeping in hotels and eventually dingy abodes that are nothing short of brothels, due to his frustration and lack of money to support their life on the run. His naivety in the ways of the world costs him everything, and eventually cost Owen his life at the hands of his would-be father.
Having a holistic view of the two films should shed light on the sort of effect that the Church has on Ireland. One might think that the church was acting independently but as Frederick Powell states in his book, "The Politics of Irish Social Policy", 'The incarceration of (these) women...was proposed by the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor in 1927...and by 1932 an arrangement had been established between the local authorities and the sisters-in-charge of Magdalene Asylums in Dublin and elsewhere for the containment of "this more intractable problem".'(Powell, 1992)
Ireland was a clericalist capitalist state. The state and the church were 'in on it' since the beginning of the unprintable ills that happened in Ireland. As Lamb illustrated, the oppression of the disadvantaged few encumbered both the young and old.
Granted, the above proposal of 1927 started as a good gesture to help the disadvantaged in society but the 'sisters and brothers' of the church apparently grew greedy and began their slave trade, in which orphans and the 'fallen women' worked tirelessly in the laundries and other vocations under severe brutality towards fattening the pockets of the church. Corruption between the church and the government official ensured a "win-win" situation, whereby the toil of the oppressed brought profit to the church as long as the local authorities also got their piece of the pie.
One can only imagine the frustration and pain of the victims. The social stigma associated with being a 'fallen woman' must have been overbearing to the women at the time, not only to those in servitude, but also to any woman in society. One was not allowed to be raped (which was considered to be the fault of the woman at the time), get a child out of wedlock, or having 'queer' or unusual behavior, unlike the rest of the community. Flirting was a crime! (Norris 1999). Therefore, the society had fear instilled in them and freedom was not a plausible idea to anyone.
The role of the church in this case is clear- instilling fear in the name of God and profiting the church through the toil of ideologically-created slaves of the church, who needed to pay 'penance' for their 'sins'. The cruelty and cunning nature of the church is obvious in the way it obtained workers, using trivial reasons to find cause for servitude. It was the big monster that destroyed the confidence of society, especially women and children, while replacing it with utter fear and psychological suffocation. It created mercenaries out of the society as well as bootlickers for fear of 'sinning' against the church.
Did it crate any progress for Ireland-whether tangible or ambiguous? Definitely not! It barred the progress of the society, especially women. Well, at first the idea was noble- taking care of those who had part of their life was stunted by circumstances. When that idea morphed into an effort to take advantage of the same benefactors of the program, it became the worst cause for the country (Times 1999).
Granted, education was relayed to the orphans at the time. However, it came at a personal price that was too high. It does beg the argument that education and business in the country would have been far more effective if things had not gone wrong. Compared to its neighbors and the world community, the Irish would have done far more greater deeds than when they had the overbearing yoke of the Roman Catholic Church and their corrupt state.