Growing up, I was a very idealistic young Catholic," says Peter Mullan, director of The Magdalene Sisters. "I wanted to be Spencer Tracy in Boys Town; I wanted to be Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. That was what the Catholic Church was to me."
But if the prelacy is longing for a Father Flanagan to rehabilitate their grievously tarnished image, those prayers won't be answered this movie season. Winner of top prizes at the Venice and Toronto festivals as well as a Miramax distribution deal, The Magdalene Sisters is an enraged indictment of the Irish Catholic Church for their Magdalene asylums, where "wayward girls" were consigned to slave labor as laundresses. Equally inflammatory is Carlos Carrera's The Crime of Father Amaro, which depicts a rural parish as a creaking hotbed of avarice and fornication; already the highest-grossing homegrown film in Mexico's history, it reaches these shores on November 15. On the festival circuit, the Vatican has elsewhere taken a licking from Marco Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile, wherein a sympathetic Italian atheist is at once amused and infuriated to discover that his despised mama is up for sainthood, and from Costa-Gavras's Amen, a testimony to Pope Pius XII's complicit silence during the Holocaust.
In the past year, hundreds of Americans have broken their silence on the epidemic of sexual abuse in the churchmost recently here in New York. Last week, just as the Vatican was about to publicly reject the U.S. bishops' zero-tolerance proposals, 43 Catholics filed a class-action suit against leaders of the Brooklyn diocese alleging rampant molestation and concealment over three decades. While none of the new crop of apostate films addresses pedophilia, all of them illustrate the delusional arrogance and codified secrecy that make such trespassesand getting away with thempossible in the first place.
The Magdalene Sisters offers, in essence, a purposefully grueling account of institutionalized child abuse: Irish teenagers, usually from poor families, could be locked away for years of physical and psychological torment to punish the crimes of being pregnant, being raped, being attractive. (Though the film transpires in the 1960s, the last Magdalene laundry shut down in 1996.) After the movie premiered to rave reviews not far away in Venice, the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, launched an attack on director Mullan, accusing him of lies and hypocrisy.
"The Catholic Church's capacity for denial will never cease to amaze me," says Mullan, a Scotsman best known for his role in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, which won him the acting prize at Cannes in 1998. "Or their crueltyto disparage someone so much that their life simply doesn't matter. I think the church's view is, 'Who are you? You're just a little Irish girl. Somebody locks you up for 10 years, what are you complaining aboutyou're still alive, aren't you?' "
Gross misuse of power is likewise a main theme in The Crime of Father Amaro, Mexico's entry for the foreign-language Oscar. An update of Eça de Queiroz's 1875 novel, the film observes a young priest (Y Tu Mamá También heartbreaker Gael García Bernal) easily lured away from his vows, both by the irresistible charms of 16-year-old Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón)who soon finds herself pregnantand the manifold perks of a holy station in a hierarchy propped up by drug-lord money.
Before Amaro's course turns irrevocably tragic, it adds a few giddy entries to the annals of apostolic erotica: the Song of Songs as foreplay talk, the confession booth as Inspiration Point (Amelia confides, "I caress myself and think about . . . Jesus"). "Much of Catholic art portrays a confusion between sacred love and carnal loveor a sublimation," says director Carrera, citing Bernini's famously hot-and-bothered Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. "The point of the vow of celibacy is to target all of these very strong feelings and redirect them toward purely divine love. But from this repression you also get sadism, perversion."
The official reaction to The Crime of Father Amaro in overwhelmingly Catholic Mexico was apoplectic. The archbishop of Mexico City declared viewers of the film to be "in a state of sin," while the anti-abortion group Pro-Vida went so far as to sue the government for permitting its funding and release. "It was not only the church and conservative organizations, but ministers and senators who condemned the movie without seeing it," adds Carrera, who describes himself as "a nonpracticing Catholicor a renegade Catholic." "Pamphlets were distributed in churches saying the film promoted prostitution and drug addiction. After Vicente Fox, who is a devout Catholic, became president, the church assumed they would regain the position they had lost in the last century, and that simply hasn't happened."
Once upon a time in the U.S., bishops could recruit a Legion of Decency to force the rebellious young seventh art into line with the ascetic Production Code, and exhibitors could bemoan the springtime "Lenten slump" when guilty devotees atoned for their sins by avoiding the forbidden pleasures of the cinema.
Officials still persist in issuing moviegoing doctrine. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops maintains an online archive of reviews. (Autumn releases to win the coveted "O"-for-morally-offensive rating include the s&m farce Secretary and the Gallic musical catfight 8 Women.) To celebrate film's 100th anniversary in 1995, the Pontifical Council issued a surprising list of canonical features that made room for reprobates like Luis Buñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini; recently, Pope John Paul II reportedly told Gérard Depardieu that the actor would make a fabulous Saint Augustine.
How the church's cine-authority has atrophied in recent years is evident in its unbroken chain of success in promoting those films it most wants to suppress. Mullan is positively gleeful about the reams of coverage The Magdalene Sisters received courtesy of the Vatican's ire ("I mean, are you guys working for me?"), while Carrera deadpans, "We thought perhaps Pro-Vida could open a publicity office at the [Mexican] Institute of Cinema."
This pair of dustups differs from most of the church's art-censorship efforts, however, in that the target works do not quarrel with scripture or traffic in irreverence. They do not, say, parody the Last Supper, as does Buñuel's Palme d'Or winner Viridiana (1961), which was banned in Spain and seized in Rome and Milan, or mock the Crucifixion, as does Pasolini's La Ricotta (1962), which earned the Italian director a four-month jail sentence for blasphemy. Jesus isn't gay (Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, 1998) or Alanis Morissette (Kevin Smith's Dogma, 1999). Nor does he fantasize on the cross about domestic partnership with Mary Magdalene (Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988) or plunge into a vat of urine (Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, 1989), and his mom isn't adorned with elephant dung (Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, 1999), and his canonized followers don't make out in church with some girl in a slip (Mary Lambert's "Like a Prayer," 1989).
Rather, The Magdalene Sisters and The Crime of Father Amaro excoriate the church as a damaging sociopolitical force. "I never intended to criticize faith," Carrera says. "This film is about the political institution that we happen to call the Catholic Church." Mullanwho reluctantly labels himself "agnostic, I guess"agrees. "The Vatican press condemns [The Magdalene Sisters] as an anti-Catholic film. It's an anti-Catholic Church film, because the Catholics are the victims here. This is about exposing what the church did to Catholics, and it's a pro-Catholic film in that respect.
"It was surprising to me that many of the women remained devout," Mullan continues. "The ones I've met still go to chapel, which is a profound kind of rebellion, in a weird waywhy would you remain a Catholic after that? They think, You're not going to take that away from me. You took my whole fucking life away, but you're not taking thisthat's my God."
"The Pope Says 'Dope': The Vatican's Favorite Films by Celluloid Sinners" by Jessica Winter
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.