Sisters a much needed relief from Hollywood

I went to see The Magdalene Sisters knowing it is a foreign, independent release about three Irish-Catholic girls in the 1960s. Though Miramax picked it up, I was fully aware it was not going to be a happy tale of three girls cleansing their souls of sin and evil through the love of God. I knew this was no Girl, Interrupted in a convent. I was expecting a thoughtful, somber film, but The Magdalene Sisters was far more than I was prepared for.

It’s not the way in which the film is made that is disturbing — the simplistic approach is actually quite calming. Rather, it is the gravity and depth of the subject matter that is more shocking than many of the emotionally-charged films overflowing with faked passion that Hollywood likes to spew out. The story shows the unnecessary rigor with which the girls are treated and their inability to escape it under any circumstances.

Lately, I have been subjected, whether through force of a significant other or my own willingness, to the strengths and weaknesses of American cinema. For people accustomed to the air-brushed perfection of Hollywood, The Magdalene Sisters is going to be a cinematic shock. It is nothing like any Hollywood release. It’s not action-packed — the scenes flow without haste but don’t drag. As opposed to the beautiful people of Hollywood, the girls starring in the film are of average beauty, some with crooked teeth and even misshapen faces. Even though it was produced on a budget of only $3.1 million, the film easily outperforms most Hollywood films with budgets ten times bigger.

Sisters is a story of three girls sent to a convent asylum of the Magdalene order of nuns in Ireland. These harsh sisters were known for running a prosperous business of laundry until, in 1996, the last laundry closed down.

These laundries were operated by women, young and old, who disgraced their families in one way or another. Of the three girls portrayed in the movie, one had an illegitimate child, one was raped by her cousin and one simply flirted with the boys.

The severity of life and guilt and the everyday harshness of existence are crisper here than in American blockbusters. They are more crude and recognizable.

There is no faked emotion, you feel what the girls are feeling and the simplicity and repetition of themes, scenes and even phrases moves you to the core. The actresses work with more than dialogue — their body language and physical acting skills are just as important as their speech.

At the risk of sounding like a semi-bohemian, self-proclaimed art film lover, I have to praise a movie that strays away from what the city of Los Angeles deems a necessity.

Parts of The Magdalene Sisters are chilling to the bone. A scene when one of the main characters, Margaret, wants to punish a priest for abusing one of the convent girls, Crispina, is a particularly good example. Margaret adds a certain herb to the priest’s laundry, which makes him run off from a procession mass shedding his clothes. When Crispina realizes what has happened she starts yelling “You are not a man of God.”

Where another director would have cut the shot after a few seconds, we witness Crispina’s realization 27 times. The effect of this prolonged scene showing the suffering of one innocent and naïve person is tougher than a million films.

To succeed, The Magdalene Sisters doesn’t depend on a big budget, action or comedy, although there are several humorous parts in it. Its strength lies in the story, the direction and the accentuation of the message through simple shots.

Even scenes that lack dialogue are more powerful than an over-exaggerated, secondhand dialogue found in Hollywood productions. In its high budget productions and overwhelming splendor, Hollywood will always struggle to achieve such a simple and powerful message.

Contact Olga Robak at