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As a boy in Scotland, Peter Mullan was pleased to belong to the same club as the priests played by Spencer Tracy in Boys Town and Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces. “I grew up believing we were the good guys,” he says in the sort of brogue that’s often subtitled for American audiences. “Full of self-sacrifice, respect for other people regardless of race, color, or creed. We were the guys who would open the doors to anyone, because anyone’s equal in the eyes of God.”

By “we,” the 49-year-old actor director means the Roman Catholic Church. Lately, however, the Catholic hierarchy has not considered the filmmaker such a good guy. His offense wasn’t portraying drug dealers in such films as Trainspotting and My Name Is Joe. Or keeping the working-class pride that causes him to chortle at the opulence of his suite at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel. It was directing a film that dared tell the truth about the Magdalene Asylums, the brutal workhouses that until 1996 incarcerated women who had offended Irish Catholic morality. His lightly fictionalized exposé, The Magdalene Sisters, drew denunciation from the Vatican itself.

The Church’s reaction “was just absurd,” says Mullan, a small, high-spirited man whose all-black attire includes oddly flamboyant parachute pants. “They said I was a liar—I’d made the whole thing up. It was on the front page of every Italian newspaper for a fortnight. That was really dumb, really spectacularly dumb. Of course, every Italian journalist worth his or her soul thought, Well, there’s a story. So La Repubblica sent two journalists to London and interviewed eight women who’d survived the Magdalenes. And then they came back and gave them a page each. Eight pages. Their stories made my film look like Toy Story 2. The stories were just horrendous. And the Vatican suddenly just went—stone.”

The director also faced Catholic censure at the Venice Film Festival, where The Magdalene Sisters won the best-film award. Two priests with digital-video cameras recorded the faces of people entering a screening of the movie. “The digi Spanish Inquisition,” Mullan calls them. “They said to people going to see the film, ‘We know who you are. Are you aware that by watching this film you’re committing a sin?’ Not in my wildest dreams could I have thought up a publicity stunt as good as that one. That was the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard. Did they really expect an audience in Venice to turn around and go, ‘Oh sorry, father, I’ll just go. Anything you’d recommend?’”

By the time the movie opened commercially in Ireland, Mullan says, “Their silence was deafening. The Church said nothing. I can only assume they decided they weren’t going to give me all that free publicity. Then when we opened in Scotland, the principal spokesman for the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, who doesn’t say nothing that’s not approved by the archbishop, does a half-page review of the film, and says it’s ‘no more anti-Catholic than Schindler’s List is anti-German. This is something we have to face up to. So I hereby recommend that every Catholic in the country go and see the film.’ Now, it’s a far cry from being an out-and-out liar to suddenly getting two thumbs up from the archbishop’s chief spokesman.

“I’ve always thought that would be a good one for the poster,” Mullan adds. “Rather than that Eggbert and Blahblah two-thumbs-up bollocks. I asked [Miramax] publicity the other day, ‘Why don’t you use some of the condemnatory stuff. Just for the hell of it.’ I thought it would be quite interesting to have, ‘”Rancorous and angry”—The Vatican.’ They’re kind of looking at me, saying ‘You don’t really understand the American audience. They take these things literally.’”

Mullan can understand such literalism, especially when it comes to those movies about tough, noble priests. “I was a very idealistic Catholic when I was a young man,” he recalls. “My ideal was as informed by cinema as much as it was by the catechism and Mass….You know: We were streetwise; we were the guys who just happened to fall on the wrong side of the fence, but it turned out for the right.”

It’s the kind of sentiment Mullan remembers dominating the Scottish church. “It was a hotbed of socialism,” he says, “because it was a Protestant country and we were the poor—the Irish immigrants. Most West Coast Catholics are from Ireland originally. When I was growing up, the Catholic Church in Scotland was very much a left-wing tradition. And an arts tradition. An awful lot of actors in Scotland come from Catholic backgrounds. A lot of filmmakers and poets and stuff.”

The church was different in Ireland, of course. “It’s because they had the power,” Mullan says. “Being a theocracy, they were able to dictate people’s lives. In Scotland, we were the minority, we were fighting that big Protestant church. In Ireland, they lorded it over the poor.”

Despite knowing that, Mullan was stunned one evening in 1998, when he happened on a documentary called Sex in a Cold Climate on “the crappy little television we’ve got in the kitchen. I just heard this woman say, ‘They put me away because I was too pretty.’ When she said that, I recognized the accent, but I had absolutely no idea who she might be talking about. Who the hell can you lock up for being too pretty? That one was just mind-blowing. It astounded me that the people she was talking about was the Catholic Church.”

The woman the director saw on TV became the model for one of the four principal characters in his film: Two are sent to a Magdalene workhouse for having children out of wedlock, one for being raped, and one simply for being attractive and allegedly flirtatious. All are based on characters or situations depicted in Sex in a Cold Climate, which Mullan says has still not been shown in Ireland.

“There was no sense of closure at the end of it—that’s what fired me up,” he explains of the documentary. “There was no recognition, no apology, no compensation, no anything for these women. No information about where their babies were. No information to the babies about where their mothers were. All that stuff just really angered me. And has for the last five bleeding years, which is how long I’ve been doing this film.”

Mullan was also fascinated that the Magdalene system relied primarily on psychological rather than physical coercion. “It was a prison that wasn’t a prison,” he explains. “With criminals who hadn’t committed any crime. The doors were locked, there was some barbed wire along some high walls, but no armed guards, no shark-infested waters. If they didn’t have the captor in their head, they could have overpowered those nuns, no problem. As a human being, as a political animal, and obviously as a dramatist, that’s intriguing.”

The Magdalene Sisters is the second film Mullan has directed, after 1997’s Orphans, which he calls “such a different beast. It was more in the realm of madness and absurdity and pain.” In the United States, the surrealistic but spiritually autobiographical film drew paltry audiences and widely divergent reviews, including one that labeled it, Mullan says, “the most misanthropic film he’d ever seen. Which really threw me, because it’s about my mother’s death and my grief.”

The director says his latest project is far more traditional. Shot in sequence at a former convent in Scotland, the film “exists quite firmly within the genre of women’sconfinement movies. It could have been a deeply silly film. If you get the confinement drama wrong, you’re in deep shit.

“I had to be very conscious cinematically of where [the film] was coming from. But the virtue of that was you could change genre. Traditionally, within the genre, you get the nice one, the simple one, the sexy one—like Chicago, actually….For me, it was interesting to play with the types so they’re not types. So you could start with a feisty heroine who in the course of the film becomes deeply unlikable.”

Mullan also worked against genre conventions by allowing his actors great freedom. He winnowed the cast from more than three hundred contenders to a few principal actresses by improvising with them. Each performer had a different style, which Mullan encouraged. “That’s why we spent so long casting,” he says. “You know you’ve screwed up if you talk to an actor after every take. Those characters belong to them. There are numerous things they do in the film that, to this day, I have no clue what was going through their minds at the time. And I don’t want to know. I enjoy watching it.”

The best example of this, the director suggests, is a scene in which one of the young women, played by Eileen Walsh, has just been forced to perform fellatio on a priest. “The last thing in the world I expected her to do was to step into the shot and look at him like she loved the guy. That blew me away. And my cameraman said, ‘I take it we’re going to go again.’ And I said, ‘No. Why?’ And he said, ‘Because that’s weird. What she’s done is just weird.’

“So I spoke to Eileen, and she said, ‘Please don’t make me do this sort of I’m-really-breaking-up-inside kind of acting. That’s my take on it. I think she loves the guy. Because she’s so starved of any affection.’ Those are great moments. ‘Cause you’re like, Wow. I didn’t think of that. That’s much better than my idea. When you’ve got actors who do that, you’re happy to walk away. You’re not just the director—you’re the audience.” —Mark Jenkins