The Subtle Tragedies Are Sometimes More Powerful

I don’t usually talk about movies on public forums. I tend to get far too invested in things that I know are highly subjective, and so when I love a movie I often keep it to myself in order to stay away from silly arguments with people who want to tell me how stupid they think something I love is. This, however, is an exception, because it is not about how much I liked or disliked the movies themselves, but it’s about how powerful their messages were, and how they made me think about some of the atrocities that the Catholic Church has committed.

I am talking about a movie that I recently saw, called Philomena, and how it made me feel compared to one that I saw many years ago, The Magdalene Sisters.

Keep in mind: I am about to get into the nitty gritty of these two movies. If you have not seen one or either of them, and you do not want your opinion of them to be tainted by what I have to say here, avoid reading below the fold (you can always come back!). Being forewarned of what happens (particularly in Philomena) will, in my opinion, cushion you from the impact of the movie itself.

And with that, let me start with The Magdalene Sisters.

The Magdalene Sisters follows the storyline of four Irish women who were sent to the Magdalene laundries for such “crimes” as being raped, having a child out of wedlock and flirting. Many of these girls were disowned by their parents, and all of them were forced to work long hours in the laundries, with no pay, little food and extremely sparse living conditions. The idea was that, through hard work and suffering, these women would be able to atone for their sins and thus have a shot at heaven despite their transgressions.

The movie is intense, and it is brutal. The nuns are shown to be evil hypocrites, eating rich meals while the girls make due with grey watery porridge. They are merciless in their treatment of their captives, and beat them brutally when they do not submit willingly. The women who live there are truly captives, not allowed to leave or complain about their terrible working conditions. The movie is dark even in its colors, and it recreates the feeling of being helpless, powerless to combat the injustice that is in your face, all the time.

I was deeply affected by this movie. I was a teenager when it came out, and I was flabbergasted that such places existed. When the credits informed me that the last Magdalene house closed in the early 90s, I was shocked. I wanted to weep for the countless women in Ireland who suffered through this.

Almost 15 years later, I saw Philomena. I was older, and wiser, and knew of many more horrendous things the Catholic Church had done throughout recent history. I did not expect to feel the way I felt about The Magdalene Sisters, as I knew this movie was supposed to be more light-hearted, more of a sad comedy than an outright tragedy.


And yet, despite all of that, Philomena left me seething and twisting in my sleep far more than The Magdalene Sisters ever did.


Philomena is also about a woman who survived a Magdalene house. She was sent there by her father for getting pregnant as a teenager. Her son was delivered in the house and, as soon as a couple was willing to take him, was adopted out, without her even being allowed to say goodbye. She describes her time in the Magdalene house, surely, and says it’s every bit as bad as The Magdalene Sisters made it out to be, but the movie is not about her time there.

The movie is about Philomena, 50 years later. Judi Dench plays a funny, slightly daft old Irish lady full of love and faith, despite what has happened to her. She is finally able to admit to her daughter that she had had a child out of wedlock so long ago. She has decided to find him, after all of these years, and she finds a journalist willing to help her.

The house where she was kept still exists, and some of the nuns from Philomena’s time are still alive in there, but they inform her, most unfortunately, that they no longer have the adoption papers with the information about her son. They smile and offer her tea when they tell her this. “Ever so polite, not at all how they used to be”, Philomena says. Unperturbed, the journalist she contacted manages to find evidence that her son was adopted purchased by an American family, and off across the pond they go. Turns out, he died many years ago, and your heart breaks for this poor woman. Still, she wants to find out what he was like, and if he ever thought about her. It turns out yes, he did. When he was dying, he traveled to Ireland to try to find her, and went to the Magdalene house where she had given birth to him.

They told him they could not find her, despite the fact she had contacted them several times to try to get information about what happened to her son.

They let a man die, without lifting a finger to grant his dying wish of meeting his birth mother.

They let a woman’s child die, robbing her of her heart’s greatest desire, to know him as a man.

I could not believe my eyes. After all of these years, after everything the Catholic Church has done, I was still able to feel shock at the casual cruelty and lack of humanity that those nuns were capable of.

When put into the grand scheme of the Catholic Church’s crimes, the rapes, the castration of victims, the stealing of children, this seems like a minor offense. But it affected me deeply, because of how Philomena reacts to the whole thing.

Up until the last moment, she defends the nuns. “Don’t go blaming them”, she says to the journalist, “They didn’t know Anthony’s name was changed”. She forgives the nun who, in a moment of temper, admits that she did not lift a finger to help, because the likes of Philomena did not deserve anything but scorn for having fallen to the temptations of the flesh. She does not get angry, not once, when she has every right in the world to feel a rage that would make the rage that I feel on her behalf pale in comparison. On the one hand, you can say that her ability to find peace is noble, and makes her a better person than I am. On the other, you can say that she will never survive the scars of her Catholic upbringing.

The difference between the two movies is in how the women deal with their victimization. In The Magdalene Sisters, the main characters never accept their plight. They fight, they try to escape, and they succeed. They survive a horrible experience, but they transcend it. They do not accept, not for a moment, that they deserve anything those nuns did to them. They do not bow down to the tyranny of the nuns.

Philomena, on the other hand, internalized the shame so completely, that 50 years later she does not come to the conclusion that having a child out of wedlock is not something you should ever feel you have to atone for. She is so thoroughly brain washed by Catholicism that, while she feels sadness at not having been able to meet her son, she does not have any blame for the nuns, nor is she able to call them cruel. Those emotional scars are, in my opinion, far harder to swallow than any physical ones she might bear from a beating.

It is my opinion that guilt is the absolute worst feeling that exists in the human spectrum of emotions. I would rather feel the pain of a broken bone, or of a twisted gut, than feel persistent guilt. The fact that those evil, twisted, pathetic excuses for Homo sapiens were able to instill in her (and who knows how many others) a constant shame and guilt for something that no one, ever, should feel guilty for made me angry in a way that the Magdalene Sisters was never able to.

Sometimes, you don’t need to portray scenes of physical abuse to make the tragedy of a situation sink in deeply.

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