ROME — Italy’s Catholic Church condemned the Venice Intl. Film Festival on Monday for giving top honor to “The Magdalene Sisters,” about fallen women imprisoned by their families in Irish convents in the 1960s.
“This film does not tell the truth; it brings dishonor on the festival and risks disqualifying it,” said Cardinal Tonini of the Vatican. “Considerations of aesthetic value alone are not enough. I’m amazed no one has posed the problem of historical accuracy.”
The row is unsurprising in a country where sensitivity about representations of the church runs high.
Scottish actor-turned-director Peter Mullan’s pic, which snagged the Golden Lion on Sunday, shows how women endured indefinite sentences of hard labor and cruelty in the name of salvation.
Vatican newspaper l’Osservatore Romano slammed the drama following its Venice premiere, calling it “a hot-tempered and rancorous provocation.”
Mullan stoked further ire by blasting the Catholic hierarchy for its awareness of the injustices committed in the Magdalene convents, which closed in 1996. The director likened this to other forms of extreme religious fundamentalism, calling for compensation for the victims and their families.
One of the most vehement critics of the Venice award was Valerio Riva, a member of the administrative board of the Biennale arts council, which controls the fest. His outrage clearly indicates that Riva will not rally to reappoint fest director Moritz de Hadeln for a second term.
“I’m in complete disagreement,” fumed Riva. “The award to Mullan is a provocation. I’m highly suspicious of claims that the Catholic Church is worse than the Taliban. This is an incorrect propaganda film and the director is comparable to Leni Riefenstahl.”
“The people who honor this film have done so solely for its anti-Catholic content,” echoed Gianni Baget Bozzo, a prominent Catholic intellectual and conservative politician. “Evidently, that’s where its fascination lies since there is such strong anti-Christian sentiment today.”
Italian distrib Lucky Red opened “Magdalene” day and date with its Venice bow, in an initial platform run of 30 prints that registered solid business and a strong screen average. The release will expand to 70 prints this week.
“As usual, there’s a lack of objectivity in these reactions,” Lucky Red chief Andrea Occhipinti told Daily Variety. “People are assuming a defensive position even before seeing the film. I’ll be interested to see what kind of impact this controversy has on the box office.”
Perhaps giving the prize even more sting, the Venice fest was overhauled by Italy’s right-wing, Silvio Berlusconi-led government precisely to avoid embarrassing, anti-establishment publicity, an irony pointed out by Catholic media figure Andrea Piersanti.
“It’s paradoxical that the most coveted award went to the film that most divided critics and audiences,” he commented. “It’s a bizarre signal that the first festival of the center-right government has chosen to honor a professedly anticlerical film.”