> Volume 5 > Number 27

Volume 5, Number 27

This Week's Reviews:  Dogville, The Magdalene Sisters.

This Week's Omissions:  Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, Raising Victor Vargas, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines.

Lars von Trier

Nicole Kidman
Harriet Andersson
Lauren Bacall
Jean-Marc Barr
Paul Bettany
Blair Brown
James Caan
Patricia Clarkson
Jeremy Davies
Ben Gazarra
Philip Baker Hall
Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Zeljko Ivanek
Cleo King
Udo Kier
Miles Purinton
Bill Raymond
ChloŽ Sevigny
Shauna Shim
Stellan SkarsgŚrd

Release: 26 Mar. 03



In Lars von Trierís Dogville, the entire set is like a crime scene, chalk outlines show the various walkways, walls, bridges, and gardens of the little Depression-era Colorado mining town. This isnít a crime scene yet, but just the barebones of civilization and, perhaps, civility. Once Grace (Kidman) enters this fairytale village (the John Hurt narration and nine chapters plus prologue and epilogue that fill the film give it the affect of a Grimm adult fairytale), though, the crime becomes impossible resist, even for a place that prides itself in its neighborliness.

Brechtian nearly to a fault, the film keeps to these chalk markings as the characters enter their homes, mimicking opening and closing doors, looking out windows as sound effects finish the illusion of confines within these outlines. Von Trier is making it clear that artifice is key to this drama -- like a Bertolt Brecht variation on Thornton Wilderís Our Town, Dogville is pure allegory, and pure genius.

The humans in the film are certainly no better than dogs, their actions seemingly built on primal decisions without any interest in human feelings. All of the nearly two dozen townspeople -- from a kindly old blind man (Gazzara) to a kindly old lady (Bacall) to a kindly young suitor (Bettany) -- are nice at first, but their evolution to misanthropic demons is painful.

Von Trier is often accused of this very action, that he, as the director and purveyor of images for the audience, becomes a sadist, trying to destroy both his actors and his viewers. Dogville does share the conditional misanthropy (with hints of misogyny) but without becoming completely unforgivable (as was the case with his utterly misconceived Dogme entry, The Idiots). In fact, even as the film becomes almost farcical in its representation of human cruelty -- ball and chains, ritualistic rape -- the humanity (if one can call it that) of the situation is clear and impenetrable. History is filled with occasions when people became their worst at times of superiority. Dogville is no great stretch of the imagination.

The direct inspiration for Dogville is the song ďPirate JennyĒ from Brechtís Threepenny Opera, a tale of a woman wronged by those around her and the comeuppance they receive by her hand. In the song, the destruction is upon a commercially enterprising community and the destructor was the pirates who took that commercialism even further.

For Dogville, the catalyst isnít as much commerce as it is power. Grace, who must cede her power to the people of Dogville, is at first defenseless to their wielding of it. She is morally and physically corrupted by their arrogance and cruelty. After all, the reason sheís on the run, to get away from the gangster lifestyle she finds abhorrent, seems utterly acceptable once she sees the reactions of those in this little town.

Ultimately, Dogville is clearly indicated to be America. Power for the nation has been an intoxicator, one that has allowed the country to take steps that might seem arrogant and cruel to the rest of the world. Broken down to our foundations by the Depression (like the way the Dogville set is merely a foundation), America has been able to wield its power in ways that cripple disagreeing groups. Von Trier, who openly admits to Communist beliefs and a fraternal feeling with the Soviets, is establishing that 11 September 2001 is begetting a new reactionary drama for the global hegemon. The crime scene is all around the old foundations of the World Trade Center.

Terrorism is merely the cyclic reaction to a domineering America in world affairs, as is von Trierís evident supposition. All the groups -- the terrorists and the authoritarians, the gangsters and the townspeople -- are evil. One question remains: which evil is worse?

©2003, David Perry,, 4 July 2003

Peter Mullan

Anne-Marie Duff
Nora-Jane Noone
Dorothy Duffy
Geraldine McEwan
Eileen Walsh
Mary Murray
Britta Smith
Frances Healy
Eithne McGuinness

Release: 1 Aug. 03

The Magdalene Sisters


The opening of The Magdalene Sisters couldnít set the stage better as it introduces the three women who will headline the rest of the film. First is Margaret (Duff), who is attending a wedding party when she is raped by her cousin. After tearfully telling a friend of the violation, she is carted off for her unchaste ways while the rapist is free from punishment.

Then thereís Bernadette (Noone; in a great performance), a beautiful young orphan who has caught the eyes of local boys. They try to talk her up, but she too is soon carted off for indirectly ruining the virtuosity of these males with her beauty and willingness to speak with them. Finally, thereís Una (Murray), a new mother of an illegitimate child. As her father walks away, disgraced by the bastard child, she is separated from the baby by the authorities trying to take her away.

All three of these girls live in 1960s Ireland, a place where women falling short of absolute virtuousness were seen as the cripplers of the countryís moral sanctity. Camps were established to monitor these girls in an attempt to either change them into devout Catholics or permanent camp residents. Nearly 6,000 women are believed to have spent some time in the homes, which did not completely close until 1996.

It is amazing that the story of these church-sanctioned prisons have remained unknown to much of the world. More amazing, though, is that this is even possible in a Western country, which is expected to refrain from such barbarism in the name of morality. (Perhaps it is demagogic hypocrisy that these Western nations now decry Islam for being too fundamental when our own Judeo-Christian philosophies havenít always begat the finest periods in our own history. This is not to say that fundamentalism is ever admissible but that sometimes we should fight our home front battles before we denounce the rest of the world.) Even in the United Kingdom, this story is fairly limited in public scope, and the unveiling of it for British television created such a stir among those watching that one particular viewer, Scot actor Peter Mullan, felt the need to write and direct a movie about it.

The place he shows in the film, which is built on the memories of various prisoners and centralized on these three existing ladies, was an abusive reality. The women who reside here, ranging from young to old, are forced to undress as a group before the nuns who make humorous quips to each other on the comparable misgivings of each body. All the nuns laugh, all the women are mentally destroyed.

Iím not Catholic and yet I have the built-in ideal of priests and nuns, refined by films like Going My Way and Black Narcissus. Seeing them as sadistic, money-grubbing authoritarians is painful, not unlike the recent discovery of sex crimes in the American clergy. When the nuns of The Magdalene Sisters sit and watch The Bells of Saint Maryís, seeing a bit of themselves in Ingrid Bergman, it is troubling to consider the extent of their religious blindness. For them, destroying the lives of these women will bring the sinners closer to modesty, closer to celibacy, closer to God. But they are not doing the good work, just the crusading cruelty of a fundamentalist regime. Today, the Catholic Church, which has openly denounced The Magdalene Sisters, has at least opened itself to what are considered common, progressive positions on such issues as divorce and contraception. The last of the Magdalene camps are closed, but -- if they are ever to learn from their own sins -- should never be forgotten.

©2003, David Perry,, 4 July 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry