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Venice Film Festival

Light Shed on Church Asylums' Dark Deeds

A drama about practices in now-closed Catholic institutions draws praise while filmmaker sparks anger by comparing nuns to 'Taliban militants.'


VENICE, Italy — Peter Mullan, the Scottish director, screenwriter and actor, is someone who doesn't shy away from controversy. So he knew that criticizing the Catholic Church in Italy, of all countries, would attract enormous attention.

So it has turned out. Mullan has attended the 59th Venice International Film Festival, where his feature "The Magdalene Sisters," which he wrote and directed, was in competition. Set in rural Ireland in 1964, the film deals with a Magdalene asylum, one of that country's supposedly benevolent religious institutions.

These asylums were run by Catholic nuns, and took in poor girls, some of whom had had illegitimate children they had been forced to give up for adoption. Other girls had been labeled as promiscuous; some were sent to the asylums for little more than flirtatious behavior.

The nuns' mission was to put these young women back on the path to righteousness. But the treatment they meted out was often harsh and cruel. The girls often worked 364 days a year in prison-like conditions; typically they worked long hours in an asylum laundry. Misdemeanors were rewarded with beatings. They were brutalized and humiliated. Theirs was a life resembling slavery. The last of these asylums closed down in 1996.

"The Magdalene Sisters," an angry, emotional film, has been among the best-received by audiences and critics at this year's Venice festival, which ends Sunday.

But Mullan raised the stakes of controversy at one press conference earlier this week when he compared the activities of some Magdalene nuns in the 1960s to those of "Taliban militants." His remark made him headline news in the Italian press.

"Well, I stand by those comments," Mullan, 41, said in an interview. Smiling mischievously, he added: "I knew that [comparison] would be an incendiary device."

He is not a man to shrink from a public fight: When his British distributors withdrew backing from his first feature film, "Orphans" (which went on to win four prizes in Venice in 1998), he castigated them for wanting to change his script. "I'd rather burn in hell," he said at the time.

He recalled that he was in the middle of cutting "The Magdalene Sisters" when Sept. 11 happened. "Suddenly, everyone knew about the Taliban. But we [he and his producer Frances Higson] had been demonstrating against the Taliban for three years. We'd been exchanging e-mails, signing petitions and supporting benefits, all because of the way women suffered under the Taliban.

"The more I looked into the Magdalenes, there really seemed to be not that great a difference between the Taliban and the Catholic Church in Ireland in terms of the treatment of women. I stress the phrase 'not that great.' [With the Taliban] it seems more extreme. But then when you look at the Magdalenes, you wonder: Is it more extreme? And I'll stand by that, in relation to the Magdalenes in 1960s Ireland--it's obviously not the case now, and hasn't been the case for 10 or 15 years.

"But just in relation to women, it's not that huge an imaginative leap to see the connection between the Taliban and the Catholic Church."

Inspired by Documentary

Mullan has chosen to dramatize the conditions in the Magdalene asylums by tracing the fictional stories of four young girls (all played by virtually unknown actresses) who enter such an asylum. One has protested that she was raped by a young cousin, another had a child out of wedlock, a third simply hung around boys in the schoolyard, while the fourth, a simple-minded innocent, descends into madness while inside the institution.

Best known for playing the title role in Ken Loach's film "My Name Is Joe," Mullan takes a minor role as the brutal father of a fifth girl who tries to escape the asylum. The British stage actress Geraldine McEwan plays the villainous and sometimes sadistic presiding sister.

Mullan, who was raised in a Catholic family in Scotland, was inspired to write the story after having seen a TV documentary on the subject.

"I was channel-hopping one night, and came across this program, Sex in a Cold Climate,' on [British TV's] Channel 4. I saw these Irish women telling all these stories. One said: 'I was too pretty, that's why they locked me up.'

"I think the reason it stayed with me for so long and I wanted to write it was that I felt so angry. I didn't know much about these places. I knew there had been a similar one in Glasgow, and that there had been a riot there in 1964. But when I researched it, it turned out it was a one-off [one of a kind]. And it was a Protestant institution, run by the Church of Scotland.

"At one point, I had considered making the film in Scotland, but I thought it would be better in Ireland, because Ireland's a theocracy, and [these abuses were] happening everywhere. So in the film you can indict the system more, rather than give [the church] a get-out clause."

To prepare for writing the story, Mullan talked to nuns who had served inside Magdalene asylums, and to young women who had survived them.

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