Mother Joan of the Angels

Dir: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961. Starring: Lucyna Winnicka, Mieczylaw Voit, Anna Ciepielewska, Maria Chwalibog. Foreign.
Mother Joan of the Angels

There is a great amount of history and text surrounding the Possession at Loudon and the death of Father Urbain Grandier in 1634. The priest was one of the many sent to a convent in Loudun, France, where nuns were reportedly possessed by demons. But after confessing to fornication with said nuns, among other things, the poor lad was tortured and burned at the stake.

Mother Joan of the Angels is not only a direct adaptation of these events, but a haunting tale of ambivalence. It poses a very relevant question for people of faith as well as non-believers: How contagious is conviction, and does it have the power to thrust us beyond reason? This question isn't directly asked by the subtext, and the director openly referred to the plot as a retold tale of repressed love, one in which a man and woman of the church were not allowed to love one another. And while that may be true on the surface, I'd argue that something larger and far less romantic is revealed.

In the film we follow the devout but meek Father Jozef (Mieczylaw Voit). After spending days fasting, praying and flogging himself, he believes he is ready to take on the most involved task of his profession: joining several other priests in a rural convent to conduct exorcisms on the nuns — who all claim and appear to be possessed by demons. Unlike the others who provide group exorcisms, Father Jozef is assigned to spend time working only with the Mother Superior: Mother Joan of the Angels (Lucyna Winnicka). She also is the first to be affected.

At first Father Jozef is disheartened and easily shaken up, especially since he's never seen women — much less those of faith — display themselves in such a depraved fashion. The antics of the nuns range from exposing themselves to spinning in frenzies. There are several demons that they claim to be at any particular time. The exorcisms are held publicly in the chapel, and while some see them as a ploy to induce faith in the insolent, others are genuinely disturbed. For Father Jozef, it seems that the best approach is to isolate himself with the Superior in order to drive out her ills.

But this isolation, as was most likely the situation for the priest before him (whom the story is actually derived from), proves to be his biggest misstep. It turns out that the isolation only gives him the space and time needed to do something he's never been permitted: grow close to the opposite sex and become involved past that of duty.

The romantic element is the first conclusion to jump to regarding a message, but it's not convincing entirely. Concerning the actual priest(s) in 1634, it is a cheap and shoddy simplification of the issues. Even if “love” were the driving force, there's no one to argue against the possibility that love of Christ was the force, not that of the flesh. This was the message I took away from the film, despite the director's synopsis. Father Jozef, naturally, can find the Superior attractive and she him, but there's an underlying evil at play in the film. At times it comes off like horror. It is easier for me to see the events as religious ideation gone astray, which is always a relevant and present theme in cinema. The film's end suggests a bone-chilling allegory of how religious conviction can take on a life of its own in the minds of a believer and how being convinced of something larger than yourself can make you do crazy things. Think of Y2K, for example, which sparked a frenzy even in the otherwise pragmatic and reasonable.

Of course, there are several ways of interpreting the work, and many contemporary theorists see it as more of a societal statement concerting post-war Poland. Others are quick to compare it to the work of the director's peers (Andrzej Munk and Andrezj Wadja) in the same context. I've read some of these stances, and they're not so far stretched, but some are reaching for an absolution when it's not always necessary to have one. For instance, this is probably the least known film surrounding the events. Others include Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon and Ken's Russell's The Devils, the latter of which takes a wholly different and much more fantastical approach. 

If you're looking for obscure films from Poland's “Golden Age,” I highly recommend Mother Joan. The director went on to direct Dennis Hopper in Night Tide and do a lot of other interesting projects, but none are so alive and enticing as this film. And for stories encased in theism and madness, it seldom gets any creepier.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Dec 21, 2015 3:00pm
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