Forget “Kill Bill”–the most violent and irreverent film of 2003 is “The Magdalene Sisters.”

The film — which is based on a true story — takes place in 1960s Ireland, where 30,000 young women who were deemed sinful by their families were sent to live and work at the so-called Magdalene Asylums. These were lucrative laundry businesses disguised as convents by the Sisters of Mercy. “The Magdalene Sisters” follows three unlucky girls, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Rose (Dorothy Duffy) and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), through the wrought-iron gates of the Asylum where, with back-breaking labor, they are meant to repent for their sins.

What horrible sins could these three girls have committed to deserve this brutality? Margaret gets raped by her cousin at a wedding and is branded a whore by her parents. Rose has a child out of wedlock. And Bernadette, well, Bernadette is just plain pretty and is caught flirting with the street boys who loiter at the gates of her orphanage.

Once imprisoned in the Asylum — a Dickensian world of abandoned children and cold-hearted caretakers — the girls are subjected to abuse and public humiliation. The Sisters forbid the girls to speak and beat them over any misconduct. “If they see you get friendly, they’ll skin you alive,” one girl whispers to Bernadette, over the hiss of the steam in the laundry–a room which seems to be taken straight out of Zola’s “L’Assomoire.” In one painful scene, the girls are even forced to remove their clothes while the nuns critique their naked bodies.

Once the film settles into the grueling routine of the girls’ daily labor, the story becomes one of escape. Bernadette tries to entice a delivery boy with sexual promises to help her flee the Asylum, but he chickens out at the last minute. Bernadette is then punished when a nun shaves off all of her luxurious, black hair.

When she accidentally stumbles upon a garden door left ajar, Margaret finally has the chance to escape. But as she steps out into the rolling Irish countryside, she is so overwhelmed by the sheer idea of freedom that she quickly runs back into the Asylum. It is infuriating to watch the girls accept their incarceration without trying harder to escape, but then again, this film proves to be something more profound than just another prison escape flick. Instead, it is about what happens when one has been imprisoned so long: freedom no longer makes sense.

Though the film’s first half is exploitative and hard to watch, the second half transforms into a complex psychological study of the human spirit in captivity. With subtle direction on the part of writer/director Peter Mullan, “The Magdalene Sisters” portrays the transformations within the girls’ psyches. Some of the girls repress their bitterness and anger, while others lash out with violence. Still others go slowly mad.

Though the film is heavy and masochistic, Mullan does let up at times, infusing certain scenes with humor. Oddly, the most harrowing scene begins as the film’s funniest. When attending an outdoor mass, the entire congregation watches in shock as the priest begins tearing off his vestments and scratching himself violently. Naked and beet-red, he runs through the field, while Margaret tries to conceal a private smirk, for she was the one who snuck nettles into the wash, causing his painful rash.

Though initially hilarious, the scene quickly transforms into one of horror, when one of the girls, Crispina (Eileen Walsh), suddenly becomes emotionally distressed and starts yelling, “You are not a man of God!” at the fleeing priest. She screams this phrase over and over while the congregation stands paralyzed with shock. Mullan proves his gall as a director here by bravely holding the shot longer than needed, emphasizing his point.

In a film that would otherwise feel like a lecture infused with shock value, intensely good acting prevails to make it worth seeing. It is Walsh’s brutally honest portrayal of Crispina, a woman so abused by the Sisters that she slowly descends into insanity, that easily steals the show.

“The Magdalene Sisters” strongly associates the heavy hand of Catholicism with guilt and shame. The atmosphere is akin to Frank McCourt’s Ireland, where God is ever-present in one’s daily life and vocabulary. Ever since Mullan won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival for this film, the Vatican has accused him of being anti-Catholic. But the film is not so much anti-Catholic as it is anti-clerical, blatantly portraying the abuses of power within the clergy. Yet, though “The Magdalene Sisters” portrays the specific cruelties that the Sisters inflicted on the girls, the film is more about the idea of liberty itself and the inability to escape the psychological backlash that results from such brutal incarceration.

It was strange leaving the theater after seeing the film. I was overcome with such a strange feeling of unabashed freedom. The air just smelled differently.