Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bless me Father, for I have sinned…

I don’t watch many movies, but I viewed two this week, on DVD: The Magdalene Sisters, and Agora.

The first is about the so-called Magdalene laundries in Catholic Ireland, into which thousands of girls and young women were involuntarily placed during the middle of the last century, often by their families, for the unforgivable scandal of getting pregnant outside of marriage, or for what was deemed promiscuous behavior. These institutions were run and staffed by often sadistic nuns. The workdays were long and hard, with no pay. Degradation was constant. When a pregnant girl gave birth, her baby was taken away from her and placed for adoption or into an orphanage. The movie was harrowing, as was the Channel 4 (Britain) documentary on which the film was based.
Agora is a highly fictionalized story of the philosopher Hypatia, who lived and worked in 4th-century Roman Alexandria. Little is known of her life with certainty, other than that she was regarded as a talented mathematician and astronomer in a man’s world. History also records that she was murdered by a Christian mob for presumed witchcraft and impiety. The movie is an unabashed screed against religion (the great library of Alexandria is ransacked and destroyed by Christian fanatics). It portrays Hypatia as a rational skeptic in a world of dogmatic superstition. I enjoyed the movie best for its impressive computer-generated representations of ancient Alexandria.

Movie-wise, it was not a great week for religion.

Of the two films, The Magdalene Sisters was of greater interest to me because it overlapped so much with my own childhood. Of course, in the United States the Church did not have the unquestioned authority it had in Ireland, a country that was held up to us as a Catholic paragon of national virtue. Still, we were taught that priests and nuns were not to be questioned, that their authority derived from God. We were also taught that our bodies were sinful, and in need of mortification.

In Ireland, where until relatively recently the secular authorities deferred to the Church in matters of education and morality, we now know the system led to horrific abuses, of which the Magdalene laundries were just one example. When the whole ugly edifice came tumbling down during the last decades of the 20th century, it crumbled to dust. "Catholic" Ireland is now about as secular as a nation can get.

The last laundry closed in 1996.