Archive for August 1, 2003

The Magdalene Sisters

August 1, 2003

Any movie denounced by the Vatican probably has at least that going for it, but The Magdalene Sisters — which sheds light on a particularly shameful part of the Catholic Church’s history — has much more to recommend it than simple irreverence. Until fairly recently, the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland ran the Magdalene Asylums, essentially slave-labor prisons for “wayward” girls. To qualify as wayward, you might have a child out of wedlock, or be raped by your cousin and watch your family turn its back on you, or simply be seen talking to boys too much at the orphanage. Those are the “sins” committed by the three lead characters: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), the rape victim; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), the orphan; and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who not only loses her newborn son but, upon arrival at Magdalene, her name. (There’s already a Rose there, so she’s called by her communion name Patricia.)

Miramax is selling this as a triumph-of-the-human-spirit wedge of cheese, but it’s a much tougher piece of work than that. Writer/director Peter Mullan, an actor making his second feature (he appears here as the viciously unforgiving father of a girl who has attempted escape), delivers a sobering drama with drab gray colors and symmetrical compositions right out of a Kubrick film; this is The Shawshank Redemption without the inspirational muck that always mars that film for me. There’s very little redemption here, only suffering, humiliation, and the desperate need for escape. The prisoners here, after all, have done nothing much wrong except being female. To color even slightly outside the line of good-girlhood is to invite expulsion from the family and a hard cot at the asylum.

The Magdalene girls are required to work long hours every day of the year; the three protagonists toil in the laundry. As punishment for various infractions, the girls are beaten or have their heads shaved or, ultimately, are sent to a real asylum to be doped into submission. Even when the nuns who run the show are trying to have a little fun, there’s the spectre of sadism, as in the bizarre scene where a group of the girls stand naked while two nuns bestow “awards” for the biggest breasts, hairiest bush, etc. And you definitely don’t want to get on the bad side of Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a corrupt harridan who relishes the torment of her charges and justifies it all as the necessary penance of sinners.

Our heroines are not always heroic. Bernadette, for instance, is a sullen and rather callous girl who’s probably had the hardest life of the three. She has a late-inning scene with an elderly asylum co-worker that might force some viewers to break their identification with her; but we see that kindness doesn’t come easily to Bernadette, who may see her harshness as a hostile act of mercy. Another inmate, the psychologically fragile Crispina (Eileen Walsh in the film’s standout performance), goes steadily downhill after the aforementioned humiliating “awards ceremony.” Crispina’s arc is the film’s most helplessly tragic, sealing the movie with the most haunting image of desolation this year. She, too, is realistically drawn as an unstable and childish girl who isn’t equipped to survive the rigors of Magdalene (which include sexual abuse by a priest).

The Magdalene Sisters gives one of its heroines an almost absurdly matter-of-fact release from bondage, as if to say that all it takes is one person on the outside (preferably male) to redeem you and rescue you, and heaven help the rest of the girls who don’t have one. The other two make such a loud botch of their eventual escape that, oddly, it feels credible — more so than a carefully planned Hollywood escape would have been. We get the feeling that Sister Bridget just watches them go, thinking to herself, Good riddance. The movie ends happily for these three, but the movie is set in the mid-’60s, and a title at the end informs us that the Magdalene Asylums were in business until 1996, detaining more than 30,000 women before their last door was closed. This is a riveting piece of drama about a forgotten slice of history, no matter what the esteemed movie critics at the Vatican say about it.

Gigli

August 1, 2003

Will nobody spare a kind word for Gigli? This odd, garrulous whatever-it-is, which joined the ranks of notorious flops practically before it was even released, has garnered a remarkable 8% rating on rottentomatoes.com (meaning the other 92% of the collected reviews savaged it) — worse than Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (27%), worse than The Life of David Gale (20%), worse than Dumb and Dumberer (11%), yes, even worse than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (19%). I submit that even if Orson Welles had risen from the grave and directed Gigli, the numbers would still have been in the basement. The critics have had their knives out for this one, because they’re as sick of Ben and J.Lo — the one-time media prince and princess — as the rest of us.

I can’t call Gigli a misunderstood masterwork, but I’m not ashamed to say I enjoyed it. The movie, about two mob enforcers (Ben Affleck as the titular Gigli, Jennifer Lopez as the false-named Ricki) assigned to kidnap the mentally-challenged brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor working a mob case, is weirdly, almost perversely digressive. Writer-director Martin Brest refuses to push his characters towards some sort of chintzy shoot-out or car chase; he likes to leave them in a room and listen to them argue, philosophize, ruffle each other’s feathers. As he’s shown in his earlier work (Beverly Hills Cop, Scent of a Woman, Midnight Run, Meet Joe Black), Brest is more interested in the doodles in the margins than in the actual text. He loves improv and he loves actors; he brings in a few powerhouses (Christopher Walken, Lainie Kazan, and a gay-inflected, gun-waving Al Pacino) and lets them ramble and rant.

Ben Affleck is always falling in love with unattainable women, either lesbians (Chasing Amy) or assassins (Daredevil), and here he’s got both at once. Ricki, the sort of contract killer who quotes from Sun Tzu and curls up with a Thich Nhat Hanh book in bed, weighs in with a playfully lusty speech in praise of female contours; Gigli goes slack in the jaw, knowing she’s got a point. This movie is too stuffed with bizarre detail to be waved off as conventional — I particularly liked Ricki’s theory about masculine and feminine methods of looking at one’s fingernails. Every reel seems to bring a fresh supporting character to storm in and paint in bold colors, whether it’s Lainie Kazan as Gigli’s mom (who has sexual secrets of her own) or Missy Crider in a startling walk-through as Ricki’s jealous ex-girlfriend.

The premise of two mob killers (California mob killers, yet) stuck with a cutely mentally ill kid is a bit too high-concept, but Gigli gets some mileage out of it; the boy, named Brian, has quirks and obsessions of his own — everyone in the movie is flustered and driven by sexual appetite. By the time Al Pacino shows up in full roar as a mob associate who leaves someone’s brains dripping into a fish tank (we get a close-up of a fish nibbling at the gray matter), you realize that this is only a Bennifer movie by default; entire scenes go by wherein the two stars clam up while newcomer Justin Bartha babbles or Christopher Walken takes his usual sweet time delivering his lines.

Brest has made, almost spitefully, a movie that will not appeal to the tabloid followers of the Ben-and-J.Lo saga, or to anyone else looking for a straightforward narrative. Directors used to be free to make this sort of strange, oblique film in the ’70s. Ever since Beverly Hills Cop made him a player, Martin Brest hasn’t been content to work within mainstream structures without warping them a little. If you look at Gigli as the work of a director who wants to take viewers on a ride substantially different from the one they signed up for, it’s considerably and consistently of interest.