Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 24, 2013

Philomena; The Magdelene Sisters

Filed under: Film,religion — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Among the many major studio DVD screeners I received in November as a NYFCO member, “Philomena” was a low priority item. I could not imagine nominating this as a best film of 2013 based on the previews I had seen in the theaters. It starred Judi Dench as an elderly Irish woman named Philomena Lee trying to find a son she had put up for adoption 50 years earlier, aided by a British reporter covering her story.

Indeed, as the film started I identified completely with the reporter who told Philomena’s daughter who he meets at a cocktail party that he did not cover “human interest” stories. Also, he was going to be busy writing a history of Russia—my kind of guy.

It is only after Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) sits down with Philomena and begins to flesh out her story do we discover that she was one of thousands of young women victimized by the Catholic Church in Ireland that turned them into virtual slaves in laundries run out of their convents, in her case a place called Roscrea. This was the plot of Peter Mullan’s 2003 “The Magdelene Sisters”, a film I never saw but had vivid memories of the reviews depicting a chamber of horrors.

Roscrea was what they called a Magdalene Asylum, not a mental institution but what Americans would call a reformatory for Catholic girls. The crime was not robbery or auto theft but having an out of wedlock child, prostitution, or promiscuity.

Funded by the Guardian newspaper that initially considered this only a “human interest” story, Martin and Philomena fly to Washington in search of her son not knowing exactly what to expect. Maybe he was dead? Maybe he came back from Vietnam without his legs? Those were the thoughts gnawing away at Philomena.

“Philomena” is at once a detective story and a powerful indictment of the Catholic Church that forced Philomena to give up her out-of-wedlock son for adoption when she was slaving away as a laundress. The church does everything it can to prevent her from finding out the whereabouts of her son and it is up to Martin to use his investigative reporting skills to track him down.

The film is based on a true story. Martin Sixsmith wrote “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” in 2009, a story he first covered for the Guardian in 2006:

A little later I met Philomena herself. She told me she had given birth in a country convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary on 5 July 1952. She was 18 when she met a young man who bought her a toffee apple on a warm autumn evening at the county fair. “I had just left convent school,” she said with an air of wistful regret. “I went in there when my mother died, when I was six and a half, and I left at 18 not knowing a thing about the facts of life. I didn’t know where babies came from … “

When her pregnancy became obvious, her family had Philomena “put away” with the nuns. After her baby, Anthony, was born, the mother superior threatened Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word about her “guilty secret”. Terrified, she kept it quiet for more than half a century. “All my life I couldn’t tell anyone. We were so browbeaten, it was such a sin. It was an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock … Over the years I would say ‘I will tell them, I will tell them’ but it was so ingrained deep down in my heart that I mustn’t tell anybody, that I never did.”

I was intrigued to know why the nuns had been so insistent on the importance of silence and secrecy. The answer, almost certainly, lay in what had happened next.

Philomena was one of thousands of Irish women sent to convents in the 1950s and 60s, taken away from their homes and families because the Catholic church said single mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children.

If I had seen “Philomena” in advance of our awards meeting, I surely would have nominated it for the best film of 2013. I could spend thousands of words extolling its merits but will only mention the most important. If the best screenplays rest on a foundation of powerful characters, such as is the case for all literature going back to Sophocles, then “Philomena” is successful beyond all expectations. Martin was raised as a Catholic but now considers religion to be humbug, especially a Catholic Church that exploited teenaged women and robbed them of their babies. Despite what the Church did to her, Philomena remains a devout Catholic and even puts a St. Christopher’s Medal on the dashboard of Martin’s car to “protect him”. Although Martin is often unsparingly cutting when it comes to Philomena’s superstitions, in this instance he only uses facial expressions to register his annoyance. The pairing of these two is as memorable a play on religious and psychological differences as any film I have seen since “The African Queen” in the mid-1950s. As was the case with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, Coogan and Dench evolve into a couple deeply committed to each others’ cause even as they quarrel to the semi-bitter end.

In addition to his nonpareil performance as Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan also wrote the screenplay in partnership with Jeff Pope who has written exclusively for television in the past. Nothing in their careers would have foreshadowed such brilliant writing. Coogan is best known as a stand-up comedian whose own Catholic upbringing in a working class Irish family surely helped him to develop Philomena’s character. The only brush with politics was his activism against the Murdoch press when he discovered that he was a victim of phone hacking. Like the character he plays, Coogan is now an atheist.

Veteran British director Stephen Frears, who directed “Philomena”, also directed “The Queen” in 2006, a film I nominated as best of the year back then. This is British filmmaking at its best and I strongly encourage you to see the film the first chance you get. It is playing at better theaters everywhere, as they say.

A couple of hours after watching “Philomena”, I decided to watch “The Magdelene Sisters” for the first time on Amazon.com streaming (it is also on Youtube as indicated above). Although there are scenes of the young Philomena working in the laundry and being mistreated by the nuns, nothing prepares you for the sadism on display in Peter Mullan’s film that matches “12 Years a Slave” in many ways. That is no accident since the young women who worked in convent laundries were slaves for all practical purposes. Not only did they not get paid; they were beaten mercilessly for the slightest offense. Failed escape attempts brought on especially brutal reprisals.

The film is focused on three young women who were sent to a Magdalene Asylum (in 1964 for various offenses but all related to challenging Catholic sexual norms. Instead of punishing the young man who raped Margaret at a wedding party, she instead gets sent away. As the film progresses, you cannot escape feeling that women have it better in Saudi Arabia than they did in Ireland in the 1950s and early 60s.

Except for Margaret, who is rebellious from beginning to end like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”, all the other girls are unflinchingly devout just as Philomena was. This lends to a sadomasochistic relationship between nun and ward that is all the more obvious when a particularly nasty piece of work has the girls strip naked and evaluates them as to who has the biggest breasts.

I understand that the new pope has said some pretty decent things about poor people, etc. but my reaction to this film was boiling rage and fantasies about blowing up the Vatican.

Director Peter Mullan is a most interesting filmmaker. Born in 1959, Mullan studied economic history and drama at the University of Glasgow. Wikipedia states:

A Marxist,[6] he was a leading figure in the left-wing theatre movement which blossomed in Scotland during the Conservative Thatcher government, including stints in the 7:84 and Wildcat Theatre companies. A passionate critic of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, he told The Guardian “the TUC and the Labour Party sold us [the working class] out big style, unashamedly so”.[9] Mullan took part in a 2005 occupation of the Glasgow offices of the UK Immigration Service, protesting the UKIS’s “dawn raid” tactics when deporting failed asylum seekers.[10]

In January 2009, Mullan joined other actors in protesting the BBC’s refusal to screen a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza. They told BBC director general Mark Thompson: “Like millions of others, we are absolutely appalled at the decision to refuse to broadcast the appeal. We will never work for the BBC again unless this disgraceful decision is reversed. We will urge others from our profession and beyond to do likewise.”[11]

In 2011 the Irish government convened a committee to investigate the abuses at the Magdalene Asylums. The report authored by Senator Martin McAleese claimed that there was no sexual or physical abuse, contrary to Mullan’s screenplay.

I for one find it hard to believe that nuns did not resort to corporal punishment, especially in light of the fact that Philomena and the women dramatized in Mullan’s films remained devout Catholics despite what happened to them. As is so often the case in child abuse by a priest or a parent, the victim is reluctant to testify against an authority figure.

While it is understandable why the Catholic Church would rally around McAleese’s report, it is a bit harder to figure out why Brendan O’Neill, a long time member of Frank Furedi’s Spiked Online group, would make common cause with the clergy. Here’s O’Neill in the Telegraph:

In the Irish mind, and in the minds of everyone else who has seen or read one of the many films, plays and books about the Magdalene laundries, these were horrific institutions brimming with violence and overseen by sadistic, pervy nuns. Yet the McAleese Report found not a single incident of sexual abuse by a nun in a Magdalene laundry. Not one. Also, the vast majority of its interviewees said they were never physically punished in the laundries. As one woman said, “It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns… I was not touched by any nun and I never saw anyone touched.” The small number of cases of corporal punishment reported to McAleese consisted of the kind of thing that happened in many normal schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s: being caned on the legs or rapped on the knuckles. The authors of the McAleese Report, having like the rest of us imbibed the popular image of the Magdalene laundries as nun-run concentration camps, seem to have been taken aback by “the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns”.

Apparently the free-spirited libertarians at Spiked have been evolving toward a rapprochement with the Vatican for some time, after the fashion of Obama conducting secret talks with Iran when the “anti-imperialist” left was expecting him to bomb it. How someone who used to call himself a Marxist would be oblivious to the sort of repression embodied in the Magdelene Asylums is a profound mystery. Even if not a single blow had been administered, it is a crime against humanity to jail young women for promiscuity or having babies out of wedlock.

Back in 2010 Spiked leader Frank Furedi wrote an article titled “Crusade against the pope: an Inquisition-in-Reverse” that argued against the proposition: “The pope’s criticism of contraception is denounced because it encourages unprotected sex, leading to the spread of AIDS. In other words, Catholicism represents a health problem; it leads to the moral pollution of the innocent.”

Well, yeah, I thought everybody knew that.

Is it possible that Spiked is trying to line up some funding from the Vatican? I know that it costs a bundle to maintain a staff of people in a bunch of think-tanks promoting a corporate agenda, but surely there are better sources than the Vatican. Somebody should give Frank Furedi the Koch brothers’ phone number.


  1. ” it is a bit harder to figure out why Brendan O’Neill, a long time member of Frank Furedi’s Spiked Online group, would make common cause with the clergy.”

    Not harder than figuring out why you would “make common cause” with the Islamists battling the Assad regime in Syria. Just because you stand on the same side of the barricades doesn’t necessary mean you have the same reasons for doing so.

    In the case of O’Neill it’s totally understandable. Spiked Online comes out of the RCP (UK not batshit crazy US party). One of the main pillars of the RCP’s activities in Britain was resolute advocacy for the “Irish cause” and especially opposing all instances of British bigotry toward the Irish, which of course includes anti-Catholic bigotry.

    Louis, you’ve consistently talked about the growing Islamaphobia around the world. That doesn’t mean you are Islamic yourself or support or believe in the teachings of Islam. Same principle applies here brother.

    You tend to suspend your Marxist analytical skills when it comes to people you don’t like for whatever reason.

    Comment by Dan Tucker — December 25, 2013 @ 2:52 am

  2. “Even if not a single blow had been administered, it is a crime against humanity to jail young women for promiscuity or having babies out of wedlock.”

    This really takes the cake. I’m sure you lent support, critically or otherwise, to the various Stalinist regimes that arose around the globe since the October Revolution. Do I really need to go over some of the extremely reactionary “family policies” these regimes had, from putting gay and transgender people in labor camps to promoting or limiting their personal reproductive abilities??

    Comment by Dan Tucker — December 25, 2013 @ 2:56 am

  3. I wasn’t aware that decrying the jailing of young women for having children out of wedlock and forcing them to do laundry like slaves was anti-Catholic bigotry, In terms of “supporting” Stalinist regimes, I guess we have a different analysis on Cuba. Cuba might have did some terrible things 35 years ago to gays but it also sent doctors around the world to aid the poor. But if you find Frank Furedi’s group palatable, don’t let me stand in the way. Over the years I’ve learned that like Titania waking up in love with a man who has an ass’s head, leftists have strange predilections.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 25, 2013 @ 3:05 am

  4. Come on Louis. Anyone with a brain in their head would oppose the jailing of women for having a baby outside of the rules of a religion. Literally no one is saying “defend the right of the Vatican’s reps in Ireland to enslave immoral women!” What was criticized: witch hunts, dishonesty, exaggeration and hypocrisy.

    If it matters, I’m not a partisan of the ex-RCP. I don’t agree with their positions, including on Ireland and the Church. I’m just saying it’s easy to understand why people like O’Neill would write what they did.

    And Cuba was only one of many states with reprehensible “family” policies that were either supported or “defended against imperialism” by the vast majority of the left.

    Comment by Dan Tucker — December 25, 2013 @ 3:23 am

  5. Well I grew up as a Catholic in the 1940s, 50s and 60s & I endorse every word of Louis’ criticism. The Irish Catholic Church was a thing of evil. The brutality it sanctioned towards the poor and the working class was also matched by its psychological warfare against “sins” and “sinners”. In my home town the priests were like little gods when they walked the streets. We were supposed to salute and get out of their way. Now thanks to the revelations of their systematic cruelty and abuse, they skulk around like ghosts. They have sown and now they reap the disgust and hatred of thousands like me.

    Well said Louis and a big thank you for writing on these films.



    Comment by Gary MacLennan — December 25, 2013 @ 7:56 am

  6. […] Philomena; The Magdelene Sisters (louisproyect.org) […]

    Pingback by Philomena and the art of cinematic propaganda | Tim Haslett's Blog — December 31, 2013 @ 1:36 am

  7. Catholic church yes but she was not a Magdalene victim…..Philomena said so !! Did you not listen ?!!!!

    Comment by Amy-Leigh Bartlett — October 2, 2018 @ 10:17 pm

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