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Agroup of adolescent girls are ordered to exercise in the nude by their supervising nuns, who mock them with giggly laughter. The girls are then made to step forward, one at a time, so the nuns can judge who has the largest bottom, the smallest breasts, and the hairiest private parts.

Humiliated, one of the girls bursts into tears, to head nun Sister Bridget's purported incredulity. "Why are you crying?" Sister Bridget inquires sardonically. "You've won." Then with eerie normalcy, she instructs the girls to "put your clothes on, the lot of you. It's time for tea."

Two years after filming that potent scene in The Magdalene Sisters, Irish actress Nora-Jane Noone singles it out as one of the most difficult to enact.

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"It was really tough to have to get into that kind of mindset," Noone, who plays Bernadette, recalled during a recent visit to Toronto to promote the film, which opens today.

"I mean I'm sure I didn't feel anything as bad as the girls who actually lived in the laundries, but it does hit a nerve."

The Magdalene laundries were institutions sponsored and maintained by Ireland's Catholic Church, where thousands of young women who were thought to pose a moral danger to themselves and others were sent to atone for their "sexual sins." Unwed mothers, girls of dubious chastity, or those simply considered too pretty, were locked up and forced to work without pay in commercial laundries that served some of Ireland's largest institutions and profited the church. Though official records have been kept from the public, it is estimated that more than 30,000 women were interned in the laundries that existed until the seventies, with the last one closing in 1996.

They were allowed no contact with the outside world and confined to a 24-hour regime of work, prayer and sleep. Their spirits were thwarted by the warped lessons and cruel punishments administered by an order of nuns ironically titled the Sisters of Mercy, and in many cases they were raped and sworn to silence by the visiting priests.

In The Magdalene Sisters, writer and director Peter Mullan tells their story by tracing the lives of four Dublin women in the 1960s -- fictional composites based on the many interviews he conducted with real laundry residents.

Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a wedding and immediately handed over to the nuns for this disgrace. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has a child out of wedlock that is plucked from her hands before she is locked away. Bernadette (Noone) is a spirited orphan who is incarcerated for enjoying the attention that her sparkly-eyed, pouty-mouthed beauty garners from young men. And within the walls of the laundry they meet Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a dim-witted girl who barely grasps her crime of having an illegitimate child.

Noone auditioned for the role during an open casting call for teenaged Irish girls in her native Galway, with no formal training and experience limited to "a school show and pantomimes and amateur stuff."

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"I'd kind of heard about the Magdalene laundries, but I really didn't know the facts -- how terrible it was, or what really went on," recalls the 19-year-old University College Galway science student.

But this softly spoken admission only testifies to her natural acting prowess. On screen she convincingly -- and often silently -- conveys a feisty and precocious girl whose oppressive environment steadily transforms her into a dark and damaged woman.

Before shooting the film, Mullan equipped the cast by immersing them in background on the subject.

They read books and the script for the play Eclipsed, written by a former nun who'd been sent as a temporary worker to a Magdalene laundry. And they watched documentaries, beginning with Sex in a Cold Climate -- the critically acclaimed British television film that inspired Mullan to give his own unflinching account of the ghastly life in the laundries.

But Mullan's front-of-the-camera experience -- he has acted alongside Ewan McGregor in Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and was named best actor at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival for his starring role in My Name Is Joe -- shone through in his directorial role.

"He really went through the script and the background and the kind of psychological and physical abuse the girls went through. He gave us the facts and nudged us in the right direction, but he gave us a lot of freedom as well and let us find it as naturally as possible," Noone says.

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To get her own sense of the atmosphere in Ireland during the sixties, Noone asked around in Galway, where graves remain as relics of the St. Michael's Magdalene Home that once existed there.

"They'd all heard whispers about what went on, but it was kind of in the background of everyone's daily life," Noone says. Even her father, who worked as a van boy at St. Michael's at the age of 13, had no sense of the fate suffered by girls his own age.

Indeed, while researching for his script, Mullan was stunned to learn how these regimes to reform young "whores" operated without public interference. At a time when church and state were still powerfully linked, Irish families simply handed their guilty daughters over to the laundries, taking the Church's word on how to handle the girls as incontrovertible law.

Mullan also came up against walls of resistance and silence while trying to find first-hand sources of information, with several Irish newspapers refusing to print his ads seeking eyewitness accounts.

To avoid further hindrance, he decided to film over an intensive six-week period in his native Scotland. But shooting in a foreign country also had the serendipitous effect of imparting the Irish actors with some sense of the displacement and disorientation that newcomers to the laundries would have felt.

"We tried to go out and shake it off and do something completely different in the evening," Noone says, "but I was only 17 and it was my longest time away from home, so I was homesick and it took me a while to get out of my shell."

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Though the secrets of the laundries were hushed for decades, one out of every four people in Ireland has now seen Mullan's film. Still, it's not without its share of critics who deny the film's veracity.

Noone recalls a priest from the Vatican picketing outside the Venice Film Festival, where it won a Golden Lion, who decried the film as "an angry and rancorous provocation." But when festivalgoers asked him whether he'd actually seen The Magdalene Sisters, he admitted that he hadn't, says Noone, who herself is a Catholic.

Last February, the spokesman for the Archbishop of Glasgow issued a statement that read: "The film makes painful viewing for anyone who calls himself or herself Catholic, but that is no reason to condemn or denounce it. . . . It is no more an anti-Catholic film than Schindler's List is an anti-German film."

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