In an era when ancient religions must grapple with contemporary realities, the Vatican seems particularly unwilling to change. The Catholic Church surely has a lot to answer for, beginning with alleged complicity in the crimes of American pedophile priests. Yet officials in the multinational hierarchy of this powerful institution appear to barely acknowledge its transgressions.
Two controversial new movies do that for them. The Magdalene Sisters and Conspiracy of Silence both hail from Ireland, where Saint Patrick drove out the snakes but evidently left behind the sanctimonious hypocrites.
Magdalene -- now at the Roxy in Burlington -- won the top prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, in the same Mediterranean land the Vatican calls home. Peter Mullan's expose takes place on the Emerald Isle, however, and travels four decades back in time. Girls are still considered the property of their parents, who in turn obey priests with unquestioning fidelity. Daughters who stray -- sex outside of marriage is the worst offense -- may be condemned to involuntary servitude at commercial laundries run by merciless Sisters of Mercy. The idea behind these "Magdalene Asylums" is that harsh living conditions, inadequate food and menial labor seven long days a week equal atonement for supposed sins.
When Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a cousin, she's the one punished with indefinite confinement at a repressive facility in County Dublin. Pretty Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is shipped there from an orphanage because she flirts with boys. The abusive Magdalene environment seems like death to Rose (Dorothy Duffy), whose parents have put her out-of-wedlock baby up for adoption. Simple-minded Crispina (Eileen Walsh), also the mother of an illegitimate child, is even more vulnerable than her equally unfortunate peers.
Veteran actress Geraldine McEwan plays Sister Bridget, the head nun who regularly humiliates and beats the incarcerated laundresses for the slightest infraction of strict rules. But her greatest pleasure, which is unfortunately a bit over the top in dramatic terms, comes from counting cash earned by the order's exploitative business operation.
The young women are caught between Catholic guilt and their suspicion that they've done nothing to deserve such inhumane treatment. Director Mullan -- also an actor seen in Trainspotting and My Name is Joe -- encourages dynamic performances from his wonderful cast in roles that must have been physically and psychologically challenging. Nigel Willoughby's cinematography depicts a claustrophobic situation without suffocating viewers, who may already feel kicked in the gut by this unflinching snippet of history.
The Magdalene laundries were finally shut down in 1996. The more au courant Conspiracy of Silence, which screened this week at the Montreal World Film Festival, zeroes in on the same church, but a different scandal. Although writer-director John Deery's script is not always subtle, the picture remains a stunning indictment of blind faith.
A prologue reveals a Pope John Paul II look-alike at a large gathering of clerics in Rome. Father Frank Sweeney (Patrick Casey), a parish priest from a small Irish town, is hustled away after holding up a sign that reads, "The church has AIDS." He yells out: "How many of you are HIV-positive?"
This one-man protest leads to tragedy back home, where Sweeney kills himself. Meanwhile, straight-arrow Daniel McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes) is kicked out of a nearby seminary for consorting after curfew with a fellow student known to be gay. Reporter David Foley (Jason Barry) gets a scoop when he begins sniffing around for information on these interconnected incidents.
Suspense builds as an archdiocese spin-doctor uses threats and blackmail in his public-relations campaign to counter all the bad press. His bosses, a two-faced bishop and an imperious monsignor, are conniving dudes with 'tudes.
Deery makes a politically correct point of not condemning homosexuality. His target is celibacy. In the current don't-ask-don't-tell climate, which bars priests from marrying or from entering into gay relationships, carnal knowledge becomes a dirty secret.
Accordingly, this film suggests the church's AIDS dilemma is linked to fundamental human desires that have been driven underground -- and in many instances, also outside seminary and sanctuary walls. A queer eye for the pious guy, if you will.
These theories place a heavy load on narrow cinematic shoulders. And Conspiracy of Silence tries to balance one too many subplots. Daniel's boisterous family -- his mother is portrayed by Brenda Fricker of My Left Foot fame -- struggles with various problems that distract from the main issue: Why are the people who putatively speak for God sometimes more mean-spirited than spiritual?