The Fundamentals 

The Catholic Church gets a going-over in The Magdalene Sisters and The Order.

Over the past couple of decades Ireland seems to have become a source of great nostalgic yearning and cultural fetishization for an awful lot of white Americans (I read once that over 80 percent of the "world music" sold in the U.S. is Celtic), the country's celebrated music, literature, and landscape providing an "ethnic" heritage for people -- many of whom aren't actually Irish -- who don't think they have one. Even the country's legacy of poverty (see Angela's Ashes or How Green Was My Valley) becomes a source of hardscrabble pride.

So it'll be interesting to see how America embraces The Magdalene Sisters, a shocking exposÇ about one of Ireland's dirty little secrets (and all countries have them), the Magdalene laundries, in which tens of thousands of Irish women were imprisoned over the decades in what amounted to church-sanctioned labor camps bred out of religion-based sexual hysteria, the last laundry not shutting down until well into the '90s.

Directed by actor Peter Mullan and based on the accounts of Magdalene survivors, The Magdalene Sisters is a somewhat formulaic film. You could call it Dead Poets Society meets Dickens or just an issue-oriented middlebrow gloss on a lowbrow women-in-prison flick.

The film centers on the plight of three girls sent to a Magdalene asylum in the mid-'60s for highly questionable "offenses." Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a cousin at a wedding and has the temerity to tell a friend about it. Word quickly spreads among the adult men in the family (their series of silent negotiations, seen through Margaret's apprehensive eyes, is an intense moment), and soon Margaret, not the cousin, is sent packing. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) gives birth to an illegitimate baby, which is immediately confiscated by her parish priest as a Magdalene sister takes Rose away. And finally, there's the vivacious Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan whose great sin is merely flirting with boys during recess and perhaps being a bit too attractive.

Mullan's craftsmanlike direction is neither showy nor subtle but hits the marks. Bernadette's removal to a Magdalene is communicated in swift, deft strokes -- a shot of the orphanage's schoolmaster gazing out a window at her schoolyard transgression juxtaposed with a shot of Bernadette's bed, stripped clean. And the film is filled with similar silent moments, such as the girls' first morning at Magdalene, when their line of teenaged girls going to breakfast passes a line of far older inmates heading the other way or a pregnant moment when Margaret wanders upon a back exit left unlocked and contemplates escape before turning back to the laundry grounds.

Mullan pulls no punches in showing the ordeals that these women are subject to. One girl who escapes in the middle of the night is brought back to the laundry, kicking and screaming, by her father, who proceeds to beat her in front of the other girls and threatens to cripple her if she ever comes home again. Other girls are victims of sexual abuse and humiliation.

But as much as these physical ordeals sting, sometimes the hypocrisy of Magdalene's guardians stings even more. The head of the laundry, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), is shown offering moral instruction as she counts the laundry's money, Mullan juxtaposing a cross with the piles of cash. Later, when the nuns and their "charges" are treated to a screening of The Bells of St. Mary's, Mullan cuts from shots of the sisters gazing in rapt wonder at Ingrid Bergman's nun to shots of the girls gazing in disgust and hatred at the sisters.

Unsurprisingly, The Magdalene Sisters has caused a scandal within the Catholic Church. The Vatican and the Catholic League have condemned it, and there's good reason for this. Because, while the film does indeed call the church on hypocrisy (a moment when one girl points at a priest and yells, "You're not a man of God," is particularly critical), its intense anger isn't merely directed at religion corrupted but arguably at religion itself.

It is Bernadette who emerges as the heroine of the film, and she carries an attitude that is not only dismissive of the superiors who torment her but of a system of belief that would make such a thing possible. "Any mortal sin in the world wouldn't justify this place," she tells a girl who thinks her imprisonment is deserved. When one girl expresses shock at another's suicide attempt -- "Why'd you want to kill yourself?" -- Bernadette responds viciously and cruelly: "Jesus, that's a stupid question to ask in place like this."

Because Bernadette rejects not only the church's cruelties but also its (and, thus, her more pious fellow inmates') rules and assumptions outright and because the film finds its greatest source of both liberation and anger through her character, The Magdalene Sisters becomes stronger, and more provocative, than it might otherwise have been. In many ways, the film is as manipulative as Dead Poets Society, but its horrors are so much more severe (and more grounded in reality) that its righteous anger and emotional catharsis feel more earned.

The contemporary parallels are obvious -- and not just to other, considerable, scandals in the Catholic Church or the similar oppression of women by Islamic fundamentalism. Rather, The Magdalene Sisters indicts religious fundamentalism itself. -- Chris Herrington

Heath Ledger is Alex, the tormented priest of The Order. Alex is different, you see: a young and intense man (I envision a bumper sticker on his motorcycle: "Born To Brood") who wears a permanent five-day unshaven-ness even though he still says mass in Latin. (A brief history lesson: In 1962, the pope called the Second Vatican Council, which concluded that perhaps churchgoers might actually want to understand the service they were attending. So, masses previously spoken in Latin were then, almost universally, conducted in the native vernacular. The point The Order makes by having Alex say mass in Latin: He preaches it old-school!) Anyway, in New York, brash Cardinal Driscoll (Robocop Peter Weller) stops by the parish to inform Alex that his mentor, Dominic, has died.

Just before Alex hops a plane to Rome to settle Dominic's affairs, he is visited by a beautiful escaped mental patient, Mara (Shannyn Sossamon of A Knight's Tale). She apparently tried to kill him a year before during a messy exorcism but now, inexplicably, wants to help out. How nice. In Rome, they meet up with the jovial Father Thomas (The Full Monty's Mark Addy), and together they start to unravel a vast Vatican conspiracy, a vast anti-Vatican conspiracy (including the insurgency of an evil Dark Pope), and the mystery behind Dominic's peculiar death: There is a man called the Sin Eater who, for a fee, will consume (literally) all of your sins before you die -- bypassing purgatory or hell and undermining God's role in the forgiveness/salvation business. Seems, though, that the Sin Eater (German actor Benno FÅrmann) is tired of eating sins after an impressive 500-year career and wants to pass on his powers to someone else. Alex, whose faith in God is shaky and his yearning for knowledge great, is tempted by the idea of living nearly immortally and experiencing several lifetimes of learning. BUT he's falling for Mara and doesn't want her to grow old and die while he remains eternally Heath Ledger. What's a priest to do?

The Order is quite terrible. This is unfortunate, because it's an attractive terrible film. The art direction is appropriately and strikingly moody and gothic, and the overall atmosphere is rich with all the right touches: each shadow, crucifix, and creepy, lurking orphan child is meticulously assembled. The script is god-awful, though, and in the hands of the equally dreadful Sossamon, lines hit the ground with apocalyptic thuds. The worst dialogue, unfortunately, is relegated to this lovely but vacant talent, including her monotone delivery of "I want to paint sunflowers but I don't have the guts" and, when describing the trio to which she pointlessly belongs, "We're like a Catholic Pete, Julie, and Linc," referencing The Mod Squad. It is impossible to believe that a passionate, brilliant priest like Alex would fall for a dimwit waif like her.

Ledger, among the most promising young actors today and belonging to the recent crop of outstanding foreign-born studs who play Americans better than Americans -- Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Colin Farrell -- is woefully miscast. A) He's too young to play a tormented priest who, at 24, already has a reputation for successful theological warfare, and B) a hot young priest like him would have a packed congregation and couldn't get anything done. Ever see that Saturday Night Live skit with Alec Baldwin as the handsome priest? Father Ledger would spend all of his time in a confessional, listening to housewives, young girls, and googling altar boys confessing impure thoughts about him.

The talented Ledger does, however, manage to suspend a whole lot of disbelief, what with this mess of a movie. In particular, his second-act reaction to a tragic death is great: an impressive combo of sobs, blubbering, and wails, instead of the typical cinematic posturing. He does pathos really well and recalls a young James Dean in appearance (the cheekbones and smoldering eyes) and talent. But don't they say that about every new Hollywood hunk who can actually act?

Mark Addy is around for the few laughs that The Order has in it, but it's not enough to save it from being labeled "humorless."

Most unfortunate, though, are the abounding missed opportunities. That whole back story about Mara trying to kill Alex sounds right interesting, as does the unexplored subplots about Vatican conspiracies and the Dark Pope. Now there's a movie. Instead, The Order wants to linger on the Mara-Alex union and the temptation of sin-eating as a better-paying gig than celibate priesthood. Pity.

The Order, incidentally, was originally The Sin Eater, but that title was changed, I'm guessing, when someone said, Ö la a drooling Homer Simpson, "Mmmmmmm sins." Sorry, Homer. These sins are served dead-cold. -- Bo List

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