“Only a Catholic would have made this damned film,” Peter Mullan said of “The Magdalene Sisters” in a recent Dallas interview. The diminutive Scotsman grew up in Edinburgh in a Catholic family (though he has since become non-practicing), and became a highly regarded actor–both on stage and on screen, where he won awards for his memorable title performance in Ken Loach’s “My Name Is Joe.” He directed his first feature, “Orphans,” in 1997, and was now on a tour to talk about his second, a fact-based tale of Irish girls who were effectively imprisoned in Catholic convents named after Mary Magdalene for what was perceived as sexual misbehavior, and were made to work long hours in the laundries operated by the so-called Sisters of Mercy. It’s estimated that some 30,000 “Maggies,” as the girls were called, endured the brutal system before the last of the convents was closed down as recently as 1996.

Mullan became aware of the Magdalene system via a television documentary called “Sex in a Cold Climate,” in which several former Maggies were interviewed, and decided to write a script based on their actual experiences. “Initially it was because [the story] was unfinished,” he explained. “They hadn’t received any recognition. They hadn’t received any compensation. And they hadn’t been given an apology. And they remained devout Catholics. So initially it was a means to get their story in the public domain. Amazingly, very few people knew it.” And it was a story, he emphasized, that involved not merely the church but the Irish state and society. As to whether the convents had governmental power, Mullan noted, “They did and they didn’t. Nobody challenged them–it was a kind of ad hoc power…The government didn’t just turn a blind eye to it.” He pointed out, for example, that when girls escaped–a circumstance depicted in the film–the police would return them to the nuns if they were caught.

But the basis for the system went beyond secular and ecclesiastical institutions to the society as a whole. “For me the parents, and what they did” in turning their children over to the nuns “was [an aspect of] an occupied country,” Mullan argued, “in the sense that it was a friendly occupation. They did what they thought was right for the ruling party. In the Soviet Union, obviously, it was the Bolsheviks. In Ireland it was the Catholic Church. It’s difficult for us to imagine just how imprisoned they were mentally, emotionally and spiritually as regards the immortal souls of their offspring….It all came back to theocracy, and what I experienced as a young Catholic: they’re in charge of your immortal soul. You just don’t walk away from that…..I can understand it–I can’t excuse it.”

“The Magdalene Sisters” isn’t a documentary, of course: it’s a fiction film in which virtually every scene comes from the recollections of actual Maggies. (“The incidents are true, but the characters are all fictional,” Mullan explained.) As written by Mullan, it centers on three girls–an unwed mother, a rape victim and a girl who’s merely considered dangerously provocative with boys (newcomers Dorothy Duffy, Anne-Marie Duff and Nora-Jane Noone)–sent to a Magdalene convent presided over by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a harsh disciplinarian confident in the rightness of her work. “It’s an old-fashioned drama, a very old-fashioned film,” Mullan explained in explaining its success in the European countries where it’s already opened. “Prologue, film, epilogue. It’s as near to social realism as I’ll ever get. And I think people do tend to have a relationship with confinement movies. It’s familiar but not too familiar.”

The picture has been especially successful in Ireland itself. “I think the reason [for that],” Mullan said, “is, it’s a very Catholic film, in the sense that it’s about Catholics and what happened to them. And it’s a kind of Good Friday-type film in the sense that it’s very much the dark side, the tragic side, where those who have an indomitable faith survive despite the fact that it’s the very caretakers of that faith who are perpetuating the abuse.. One in four people in Ireland have now seen the film. It surprises me, to be honest…and yet on the other hand it doesn’t surprise me. It’s a very Catholic thing to do–a kind of confessional.”

The reaction of Catholic authorities, on the other hand, was not initially positive. “It’s changed a lot,” Mullan said. “When we opened at [the Venice Film Festival], the Church–the Vatican–condemned the film with what’s now become a famous headline, where they said ‘Liar, Liar, Liar.’ That was the headline in the [Vatican] paper. And they put it on the front page of every paper in Italy for like two weeks. I didn’t think that the publicity machine would be that unsophisticated.” The result was that Italian journalists went to Ireland to investigate the story and came back with stories confirming the film’s content. “By the time we got to Ireland,” Mullan continued, “the Catholic Church in Ireland said nothing. And then when we opened in England and Scotland, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland took out a half-a-page [advertisement] and recommended that every Catholic in the country go see the film. So between September in Italy and February in Scotland there was a complete turnaround.” Speculating on the reasons behind the shift, he added: “Donning an optimistic hat, the church is realizing that it has to have the courage to admit to its mistakes. Donning a more cynical hat, it’s a more sophisticated public relations exercise. I think the answer lies somewhere between the two.” In the United States, the Sisters of Mercy recently published a letter explaining that the story comes from a very different, much darker time.

Peter Mullan himself makes an uncredited appearance in “The Magdalene Sisters,” as a father who returns his daughter to the nuns after she’s escaped and returned home. “It was the silliest thing I’ve ever done, that little cameo,” he said. “The scene as written had what I thought was a brilliant speech, and the actors we’d seen for that part of the father, I didn’t feel were getting the point–which was that the man was actually heartbroken, even though it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself…and I had this great speech, and the guys didn’t get it. So in my arrogance I said, well, I’ll do it, ’cause I understand it. And I’d no sooner done that speech than I realized that it had nothing to do with the quality of the actors in the scene…it was absolutely…just a speech–it had no place in the film. It wasn’t natural….I was very embarrassed, and I want to apologize to all those actors publicly. Fortunately, I was the writer, so I could cut it. And I cut it on the spot.” Peter Mullan obviously believes in the value of public apology, and through “The Magdalene Sisters” encourages others to embrace the idea as well.