The portrayals of religious figures in the movies are usually patently contrived: the noble suffering, the shining conviction, the heroic strength, the endless self-sacrifice. Is anyone really so altogether good? Improbable portrayals raise questions: how are we to understand them as real people when they are such one-sided paragons? Rarely are the ordinary traits of doubt, ambiguity and self-interest present to any believable degree.
The portrayals of two different groups of religious women in recent films have made me wonder. Call the Midwife, the terrific series from England about the activities of nun-midwives in the East End of London in the 1950s and 1960s, is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, herself a nurse-midwife who worked among them. Prior to this series I did not know that nun-midwives existed. The nuns as portrayed on this series are nearly angelic, and although based on Ms. Worth’s real life experiences, I wonder if they really were so saintly, so giving, so tranquil and kind. The nuns in my Catholic girlhood were certainly less worldly, less patient, more prudish, judgmental and cranky. Is the difference a simple one of real world vs. the magic of fiction? Can it be because my nuns were Catholic and these were Anglican? Or rather, did nuns who trained and worked as midwives, daily managing pain, blood, dirt, disease and poverty, make them a different type of nun altogether?
Juxtapose these nuns with those of the Magdalene Laundries. I had never heard of them either, although I know enough now to be appalled and chilled by the very words. Nearly all film-making on historical topics takes liberties for the sake of storytelling, but both Philomena (2013) and The Magdalene Sisters (2002) were based on the real and well documented stories of survivors. In 2012, an investigation by the Irish government led to the McAleese Report, which acknowledged the government’s collusion in the decades of imprisonment and slave labor of thousands of women by these institutions, and the then prime minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny, formally apologized. Compensation was arranged for the small number of elderly survivors.
The Catholic Church, which ran these institutions for 60 years through the agent of four different orders of nuns – what have we heard from them? A defense. In a published interview in 2013, a few of the actual nuns involved stated that the films were false, that most sisters were kind, that they provided a service for poor and homeless women, and not they but society was at fault for condemning girls who veered from the moral path. Even today, if you do a web search on the Magdalene Laundries, you will find a number of Catholic web sites condemning the films as lies and distortions, and pointing the finger at local authorities, the Irish government, the clients of the laundries, and the poor women themselves, as the real culprits. These organizations accuse the film makers of blatant anti-Catholicism. And did the Vatican know about the Magdalene Laundries and what took place there? Probably, although the plights of women historically have not been of enormous interest to the Catholic Church. The worldwide epidemic of sexual scandals that has emerged in the last few decades prove that the Church habitually has covered its tracks, buried the truth, avoided external scrutiny, broken the law and protected predators.
The sisters as portrayed in The Magdalene Sisters and Philomena run the gamut from occasionally kind – one nun saves and sneaks a photo of Philomena’s child to her – to unremittingly cruel and monstrous. They are as extreme in one direction as the sisters in Call the Midwife are in the other. Can they both be true? If the many women who benefitted from the services of the nun-midwives in the East End of London are to be believed, yes. If the many women who survived the ghastly abuse and slave labor of the Magdalene Laundries are to be believed, yes.
Believability. It is easier for us to understand white hats and black hats, but despite how they are often portrayed in cinema the complicated human truth is that all people have the capacity to behave extremely, even those in the religious life. I applaud the makers of these works for exposing us to both, in situ, and reminding us that while we can veer towards the light, with kindness and forgiveness, or dark, with corruption and cruelty, the greater story – for those who have been violated or served by such actions – is what lies in the many brave colors in between.
©Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.