Italy's Catholic establishment, from Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano to Turin Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, has condemned The Magdalene Sisters, winner on Sunday of the coveted Golden Lion award at this year's Venice Film Festival.
The film, directed by Scottish actor Peter Mullan, offers a harrowing look at the psychological and physical cruelty of life within the walls of a Magdalene asylum in 1960s Ireland. Taking their name from Mary Magdalene, a prostitute who repented before Christ, the Magdalene institutions functioned as commercial laundries in which the workforce comprised unwed mothers, orphans and even rape victims, all of them usually from poor backgrounds. The last Magdalene institution closed in 1996.
The film pulls no punches. It argues that the girls in the Magdalene institutions were abused and treated as virtual slave labour, being subjected to a regime of hard work, physical and mental cruelty and prayer on the road to redemption.
Cardinal Tonini, who admitted he had not seen the film, argued that the award did a disservice to Italy's major film festival: "It's most disappointing that the Golden Lion has been awarded to a film that does not tell the truth about the Catholic Church. The film's director even compared Catholics to Talibans in some of his statements in Venice. We're talking about an agenda here."
Mgr Gianni Baget Bozzo, a media commentator and priest, who has also served as an adviser to the Prime Minister, Mr Silvio Berlusconi, argued that the film was working off an anti-Catholic bias. "The people who gave this film an award did so only because of its anti-Catholic content. That is clearly the film's main attraction."
When the film was first shown at the festival, it prompted wildly contrasting reactions, receiving a standing ovation from the audience while at the same time prompting at least one critic, from the Catholic daily L'Avennire, to walk out in protest. Last week, too, the Vatican's daily paper, L'Osservatore Romano, condemned the film, calling it "an angry and rancorous provocation", adding: "The fact that the priest is a hypocrite is written on his face and is like a mark that, the director would have us believe, is branded on all priests."
Mr Mullan defended his film at the awards ceremony. "This is not just about the Catholic Church and how it oppressed young women in Ireland. It's about all fundamentalist faiths that think they have the right to oppress young women. I hope women will see this film and realise that the greatest prison of all is in their minds. If they can free themselves from that prison, then they can start to fight back."