Friday, July 18, 2008

Mother Joan of the Angels (1960)

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Eight demons possess Mother Joan of the Angels: Behemoth, Ballam, Isaacaron, Gresil, Amon, Asmadeus, Leviathan, and Clootie. How can one man, her exorcist, Father Joseph Surin, hope to save her?

Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od aniolow), like Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is loosely based on the 1634 case of the Loudon nuns. In Loudon, France, a group of Ursuline nuns were supposedly possessed, due to the actions of Father Urbain Grandier, who was eventually burned at the stake for witchcraft. While the nuns remained ‘possessed,’ a group of expert exorcists--the Jesuit Jean-Joseph Surin among them--attempted to cleanse them in a series of public exorcism, which reportedly gathered groups of up to 7,000 people. The possessed nuns became something of a tourist attraction.

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Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels begins with Father Surin (Mieczyslaw Voit) prostrating himself before the crucifix. He has just arrived, and he is uncertain that he is up to the task. The villagers, oddly enough, don’t seem to take the possession very seriously--it’s more-or-less a good source for rumours. It’s explained that the priests allow the common people to see the possessed nuns, since proof of demon possession, paradoxically, acts as proof of God’s existence.

When Surin meets Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), he finds that she is very forthcoming about her possession. It all stems from Father Grandier, she explains, and now the evil is within her.

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The actions of the possessed nuns seems rather tame by today’s standards. Most of the lesser nuns--never named--flounce about in a rather un-nunly fashion, but most of the blasphemies are left for Mother Joan. Sadly, you’ll never hear her shout anything like “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!”, and so hers is a lesser possession in the annals of filmdom. Still, she does do a lot of her own tumbling, and a few awkward contortions, which are enough to convince Father Surin that the possession is sincere. Still, it’s unclear to me if Mother Joan’s relatively sedate possession is due to constraints of the time and place, or if Kawalerowicz intended to cast reasonable doubt on the nature of Mother Joan’s complaint.

Surin, a self-flagellator, is deeply affected by Mother Joan’s actions. It makes him doubt his own skills, and possibly his own religion. He also seems weirdly attracted to Joan’s sins. In one scene, both of them are shown in the same room, and, though separated, both simultaneously flog their own bare backs in acts of contrition. Both are naked, from the waste up, and both are performing a strictly physical act. This works as Mother Joan of the Angel’s sex scene, I think.

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As Surin begins to doubt more and more, he seeks out the advice of a Rabbi. The Rabbi makes a series of ominous statements, which Surin doesn’t seem to understand: that the presence of demons might only be the absence of angels; that all things, good or wicked, are based on love; that Father Surin and the Rabbi are one and the same. And, indeed, the Rabbi is Father Surin, in as much as it is obviously Voit playing him as well. But what do all these things mean? And how does it help Surin?

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Mother Joan of the Angels is beautifully shot on black and white film. I haven’t seen as much Bergman as I probably should, but I was reminded of The Seventh Seal, at least visually, while watching this. The film is very stark, and the two leads, Voit and Winnicka, seem to have been chosen as much for their acting as for their piercing eyes. Many of the shots are expertly composed, and aside from some jump-edits (which might be the DVD, for all I know) the film is well-executed.

The DVD by Polart is, simply put, one of the worst I’ve ever seen. The features are slim (a write-up on the director and the leads, as well as advertising for other Polart DVDs), but most importantly the quality of the film image is terrible. On top of that, the subtitles are down-right laughable. Hardly a line goes by without some glaring issue of spelling or grammar, and occasionally a line is just missing. Still, this didn’t stop me from enjoying the film.

2 comments:

Doug Tilley said...

It certainly looks to be a visually interesting film from the stills you chose. That picture of the nuns laying face down in the church is amazing.

The technical issues with the film are a shame, though. It sounds like it deserves a lot better.

Ash said...

Yeah, it's definitely a visually-striking film. The shot you mentioned was one that really jumps out. The DVD is a real disappointment, though.

Also unfortunately, the only video on youtube was that un-translated clip. It doesn't actually feature Mother Joan, but deals with one of the film's subplots, in which one of the nuns who isn't possessed is wooed into leaving the convent and living a secular life.