Modern women trapped in a medieval system

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Months before its American opening this week, "The Magdalene Sisters" sparked controversy at film festivals with its searing portrait of an Irish Catholic home for "wayward girls."

On one hand, it won the coveted Golden Lion at Venice and earned a berth in the highly selective New York filmfest.

On the other, it infuriated some moviegoers, who felt its views were motivated by anti-Catholic animosity. A review on Vatican radio reportedly said the Venice jury had been "offensive and pathetic" in honoring it."

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In the United States, meanwhile, Miramax Films acquired it for distribution, while worrying that critics would focus more on this brouhaha than on the picture itself.

That would be a shame, because "The Magdalene Sisters" is a pungent, powerful film that points an accusing finger not at religious beliefs but at flawed human institutions. It also targets social and cultural mores that are almost medieval in their patriarchal bias against girls and women.

The story takes place mainly in a Magdalene Sisters shelter, where young women accused of sinful behavior - often unfairly or fraudulently - are steered toward the straight-and-narrow path by a regimen of labor, celibacy, and isolation from the outside world. We see the misery they endure in this harshly unforgiving place, and we see the futility of efforts to enforce strict morality on women whose experience of life is so limited that some of them hardly understand the injustice of their own treatment.

Most chilling of all is the realization that such things really happened, that some girls were kept in servitude for their entire lives, and that none of this is buried in the distant past. The story takes place in the 1960s, and the Magdalene system stayed in operation until 1996.

The movie was written and directed by actor Peter Mullan, who was inspired by a British television documentary on the subject. His fictionalized screenplay brings awful realities to vivid life, reminding us that piety without compassion is meaningless.

Rated R; contains violence, sex, and nudity.

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