The Mother of All Church Scandals

The Magdalene Sisters , denounced by the papal hierarchy and held up for release by threats to Miramax and organized Catholic protest groups fueled by the most diabolical religious hysteria since the auto-da-fé, finally hits the screen this week with all of the accompanying controversy a great film deserves. A grand-prize winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it was picketed by nuns, and a major sensation at both the Toronto and New York festivals, this is a vital, responsible and powerful film to which attention must be paid. I have seen it twice, and remain devastated.

Already savaged by the world for complacency in the growing number of sex-abuse scandals that have given Irish Catholics their blackest eye in history, along comes another chapter in shame. The Magdalene Sisters is actor-writer-director Peter Mullan’s evisceration of the Catholic dogma in Dublin in the 1960′s which allowed, encouraged and even demanded that teenage girls be sentenced to indefinite imprisonment in convents for “fallen women,” where they were continually tormented and humiliated by the sadistic Sisters of Mercy who were their jailers. These draconian “convents” were nothing more than state laundries, where hysterical Catholics, with the full authority of the church-controlled Irish Parliament, punished unwed mothers, flirtatious lasses innocently accused of sexual misconduct, even innocent rape victims, forcing them to atone for their “sins” at hard labor. Imprisoned behind brick walls that made the Victorian institutions of a previous century that housed the orphans in Charles Dickens novels seem like royal day-care centers, the women were starved, beaten and worked beyond physical and mental endurance by monstrous nuns who made them slave in primitive laundries, washing the stains out of the bed linens of the sinning masses with lye soap that destroyed their skin, while the “brides of Christ” raked in money from parishioners who knew nothing of what went on behind the locked gates. Stripping their wards naked, shaving their heads, ridiculing their bodies, robbing them of decency and self-respect, denying them proper nourishment and medical attention, then turning their heads while the girls were sexually molested by visiting priests, the Magdalene sisters did not deliver redemption to their “undesirables” in a manner that could in any way be considered Christian. Instead of preparing them for holy forgiveness, these sterile old hags bred hatred, terror and malice in their inmates and broke their spirit. For some, the only escape was the asylum-or suicide, which was condemned as the biggest mortal sin of them all.

Thousands of Irish women per year were in custody in workhouses like the Magdalene convent, until these hellholes were finally closed down in 1996. Yet no one from the Catholic Church has ever been prosecuted or held accountable for these atrocities. Mr. Mullan makes you think the unthinkable-like a Nuremberg for religious zealots who destroy the lives of young people who look up to them for spiritual guidance. Despite the elements of Grand Guignol that lurk from every shadow in this film, the shocking conditions and events depicted in The Magdalene Sisters are completely true. Many of the survivors are still alive to tell their stories, and have already done so in the riveting documentary Love in a Cold Climate , and a special report on CBS’s 60 Minutes , both of which inspired Mr. Mullan to make this film. To his credit, he has distilled the gruesome details of so much human suffering into an effectively paced narrative that tells a grim story coherently, with cinematic passion that never flinches from raw details. The wrenching performances are as real as breathing. Ruling her coven of witches in wimples, the great British actress Geraldine McEwan’s Sister Bridget is a greedy, sanctimonious sadist with a smiling, benevolent face. Pale as blancmange, lethal as arsenic, she actually looks like a beatific crucifix before she lashes her victims with insane cruelty. It’s a nasty role for such a revered British icon, but she has repeatedly stated in interviews the reason she climbed aboard was to help expose a criminal church secret with a public airing that is long overdue. The girls whose stories form the trajectory of this amazing film are played by four magnificent young actresses-Anne-Marie Duff, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray and Nora-Jane Noone-who are piercing and memorable and always ready to go above and beyond the bounds of duty. Nothing is ever pushed to caricature in this alarming picture of an Ireland tourists never see. The cumulative effect of so much dedication and good work is shattering.

I am not anti-anything as long as it doesn’t endanger lives, threaten what’s left of the environment or frighten the horses. But I can only wonder: Why is it that every time I write objectively about movies or plays or museums courageous enough to take on religious infractions, question the sanity of religious myths and mind control, or treat anything involving the Catholic church with a sense of curiosity or humor, I am suddenly deluged with volumes of organized hate mail? Years ago, after I praised both Once a Catholic and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You , two hilariously irreverent plays about Catholic schools, so many enraged nuns attacked me in poison-pen letters the mail had to be delivered in USPS boxes. Following my enthusiastic review of Priest , Antonia Bird’s brave, groundbreaking 1994 film about homosexuality in the church, I was boiled in communion grape juice by angry priests. Last year, when I found the theme of how the Vatican closed its eyes and ears to the Holocaust compelling in Costa-Gavras’ film Amen , another diocese came out of the woodwork, condemning me to eternal damnation. When do these people get a life and focus on the real world? The Catholic church has a lot to answer for, but if the bedlam over pedophile priests still carries salty wounds, wait till they get a look at The Magdalene Sisters . For me, it’s a great film that deserves genuflection. For others, it may be disturbing enough to turn church suppers into heavenly hash.

Pass the Novocaine

It seems like only a Valium ago that we had The Secret Lives of Altar Boys . Now we have The Secret Lives of Dentists . I guess dentists are more important, since the altar boys who survive sexual abuse often grow up to be dentists, inflicting their pain on everyone else. Otherwise, both movies are empty, minuscule and pointless.

Dentists are the most benignly maligned professionals in the public-service sector. They are hated even more than lawyers. Their suicide rate is so high it’s amazing they don’t all live in Sweden. Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And while dentists are often perceived as stolid, humorless, self-doubting bores who would rather paint the bathroom white than paint the town red, this movie does nothing to change that concept. The central character in this quiet little independent film, played by the terrific Campbell Scott, is one of the desperate army of little gray men Thoreau had in mind-a dentist whose marriage is drying up faster than day-old dental floss. David and Dana Hurst (Mr. Scott and the soulful, underrated Hope Davis) are husband-and-wife dentists who share the same office and three daughters. All day they drill away at their patients’ teeth, all night they drill away at each other. The script, by Craig Lucas ( Longtime Companion ), has some insightful lines: “I thought marriage would be like Cinerama-and get wider and wider. It doesn’t. It just gets smaller and smaller.” But these are stale people, and visiting them in their stagnant home is as joyless an experience as a trip to a periodontist. Dana escapes her tedium by singing in an amateur opera group, where she takes the choral director for a lover. David prefers to pay back his patients’ hate and animosity with dire predictions of gum disease and threats of root canal. Denis Leary plays one particularly hostile patient who appears in Dave’s imagination-in the kitchen, in the passenger seat of his car, in the audience of his wife’s concert-delivering annoying and intrusive asides, a constant reminder of how imperfect David’s life is. In time, he becomes Dave’s subconscious, goading him to express his inner thoughts and let it all hang out. Instead, Dave holds everything inside, hoping silence will save the marriage and stave off decay like a dental implant. But these are people too impacted by time and loss to regain momentum. They are doomed. Meanwhile, there is a great deal of vomiting as Dave, Dana and all three of their kids take turns being sick with bouts of flu.

Ms. Davis and Mr. Scott give better performances than this movie deserves, but she’s passive and close-mouthed and he’s too anal-retentive to probe. It gets rather frustrating just watching them stare each other into divorce court. The verbal passion comes solely from Mr. Leary, who serves as a pretentious device more irritating than a Greek chorus on speed. The blame for the intense doldrums in The Secret Lives of Dentists lies with the tepid, stagnant direction by Alan Rudolph, a hack who, like the late, unlamented Otto Preminger, mysteriously continues, in film after film, to attract big stars, wear them down until they do their worst work, and drag out a career of mediocrity far beyond the law of diminishing returns. The secrets of the dentists in The Secret Lives of Dentists are safe with me. As object lessons in oral prophylaxis, their charm wears off faster than Novocaine.

Plunging In

Finally caught up with Swimming Pool . Big mistake. It’s two parts psychological thriller and one part pretentious French art-house head-scratcher that leaves you mumbling, “Duh.” The good parts, which imitate Hitchcock, outweigh the bad parts, which ape Buñuel. But writer-director François Ozon’s first film in English is still best described as a well-constructed but self-conscious and inconsequential trifle. The film’s chief pleasure is watching two of Mr. Ozon’s favorite leading ladies, Charlotte Rampling ( Under the Sand ) and Ludivine Sagnier ( 8 Women ), parade about stark naked, making up in window dressing what the rest of the film lacks in content and coherence. At 57, Ms. Rampling hasn’t a remorse of discretion about full-frontal nudity. She not only shows what she’s got, she flaunts it. She plays Sarah Morton, a depressed and cynical female Mickey Spillane who is suffering from such a severe case of writer’s block that John Bosload, her British publisher (Charles Dance), lends her his country house in France for a quiet vacation. Inspired by isolation and fresh air, she regains enough of her old energy to start a new book, but her solitude is severely shattered by the unexpected arrival of John’s French-born daughter, Julie (the nubile, perpetually nude Ms. Sagnier). The sounds of one-night stands and rock ‘n’ roll through the walls drive the restless author to ransack the girl’s diaries and copy whole passages while Julie drags the older woman into a psycho game of eroticism and intrigue. Julie is not just sexy; she’s very unhinged, too. When the dead body of a hunky waiter turns up dead near the swimming pool, Sarah’s writing experience and obsession with crime propel her to take charge, dispose of the corpse and write it all up in what she hopes will be a best-seller. With no clear idea how to get beyond the basic setup, Mr. Ozon abandons logic and the film eventually disintegrates into enough nudity, drugs and violence to justify the characters’ strange behavior, but not enough psychological cohesion to make their actions rational. Just when a suggested but still unconsummated lesbian affair between the two women seems imminent, the girl disappears and Sarah returns to London to turn in her manuscript. On her way out of her publisher’s office, John’s daughter Julie arrives. This Julie is a completely different girl from the one she met in France. So Sarah returns to the villa, waving once more to the figure in the swimming pool, which is first one Julie, then the other. What is going on here? Does anybody care?

The swimming pool is obviously a metaphor for the line between reality and fantasy, serving the same purpose as one of those carnival funhouse mirrors in Ray Bradbury stories. The film is too abstract for any of this to make much sense, so Swimming Pool turns into one of those Antonioni illusions that remains more infuriating than challenging. Mr. Ozon would doubtlessly respond to a baffled filmgoer like me with the stock phrase, “The piscine, like the film itself, is whatever you want it to be.” And I am Marie of Romania.