Both films, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ (Peter Mullan, 2002) and ‘The Lives of Others’ (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), perform a public function of enabling their viewers to work through the legacy of traumatic Irish/ German history. Critically discuss the statement.
As with much of national cinema and national culture both The Magdalene Sisters and The Lives of Others may act as a means of coming to terms with each respective country’s traumatic past. Ruth Barton’s comment “We may argue that The Magdeline Sisters… provide a public function of allowing viewers to work through the legacy of Irish history in its more traumatic formulations”. (Barton 98) She suggests that films such as the Magdalene Sisters can, in retelling the stories of the past, act almost in a cathartic manner, allowing untold emotions and truths to escape through the medium of film. Like the post Holocaust re-examination of the genocide and its horrors, films such as the two mentioned in the title often act as part of the recovery and reconciliation of a nation from its collective past. These representations of the past also often help in creating a revised national narrative, and along with processes such as Truth Commissions (e.g. South Africa) and commemoration, allow for victims to in some way come to terms with the past. This re- remembrance and revisitation of the past can, whilst at times reopening old wounds, have an effect in the healing process, especially in post conflict nations, according to Brewer (214). The Magdalene Sisters, at the time of its release in 2002, was at the time a very topical and contemporary issue, not least due to the recent uncovering of Church abuse on a systemic level. “The history of Ireland’s Magdalen asylums is, then, incomplete, and the still- emerging facts are even more disturbing than the fiction of Mullan’s film.” (Smith) The consequent discovery of unmarked graves such as those in High Park and Glasnevin cemetery further added to the pressure on Ireland to investigate scandals of this sort. Its dealing with the issues of the relatively recent past responds to an Irish desire for the release of films dealing with the national narrative, other examples including Song for a Raggy Boy and Micheal Collins. Mullan’s film, critically acclaimed in Europe (winning Best Film at the Venice Festival), tells the narrative of four girls’ experiences at the hands of a 1960s Magdalene laundry: their stories, abuses and reactions at the hand of their superiors. As a dramatization of life in a Church run institute, the film in many ways pulls no punches. The ritual humiliation of the women in the institute is described in scenes such as where the naked girls in the showers are jeered and commented on by the nuns, while Mother Superior viciously beating the girls, and the scene when one unruly girl’s hair is cut off, are some harrowing examples of where the film displays the abusive realities of life in a Magdalene Laundry. However, whilst the most disturbing moments of the film have the power to evoke strong emotions in the viewer, some women who had served time in the institutions have claimed that the film in fact does not go far enough to portray the full horrors of the so called asylums. Interviewed by Fiachra Gibbons of the Guardian, Mary-Jo McDonagh, a woman who spent time in a laundry, discloses that: “it was worse in the Magdalenes, much worse than what you see. I don’t like to say it but the film is soft on the nuns…the reality was more brutal”. (Guardian) This systemic dehumanisation and control of the captives permeated through the whole structure: “In the Good Shepard Asylum an individual’s identity was further suppressed by the Order’s universal practice of assigning new names (sometimes bizarre and masculine) to inmates as soon as they arrived.” (Finnegan 24) It is at times the smaller, more nuanced details in The Lives of Others which add to describing the palpable tension of living in the Socialist...
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