Matka Joanna od aniolów
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 17 July 2006
Source Second Run DVD
The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.
Based on occurrences in Loudon, France, in the 17th century, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels is an examination of our willingness to blindly follow devotions. Father Jozef Suryn, sent to investigate rumors of possession at Loudon, is greeted with flagrant disdain; already a libertine has been found guilty of immorality and burned at the stake, accused of seducing numerous nuns at the local convent. Forced to live in a dingy inn where the locals come to dance and drink with irreverent pride, Suryn must traverse a broad, ashen emptiness every morning to reach the convent, where he observes the sect of possessed nuns led by the epithetical Mother Joan, a young woman who captures his heart.
Made in 1961, the film’s stark and disquieting imagery, brought to life through skillful cinematography, creates an atmosphere of destitution and underlying disorder. We are given broad shots of the barren French landscape, where the large convent overlooks Loudon in a sea of nothingness; other than the small village, only a charred pyre breaks the terrain, a reminder of what stands between religion and immorality, symbolized by the convent and the inn. The nuns are clad in white garments that undulate beautifully in the air and make them appear to float; when they are in the carnal throes of possession, their mad dancing and sacrilegious songs create a contradiction—white goddesses pervaded by a dark malevolence. Lucyna Winnicka’s Mother Joan is a pious innocent who, when possessed, becomes an indevout seductress with evident control over the other nuns; when her fits of bewitchment begin, so do theirs, and at one point she rolls across the convent floor to escape her exorcists.
Suryn himself suffers from an inner turmoil; embodied in his habitual self-flagellation and expressionless monologues, he is by far carrying the most self-doubt. The arrhythmic eye contact he and Mother Joan maintain with the camera, a technique commonly used to further intimacy with the audience, doubles as their pensive confessions. Mother Joan, speaking to Suryn, is also avowing herself to us, while Suryn’s cold soliloquies into a shaky mirror are disturbingly honest and foreboding. In one of the film’s most visually acute moments, a despondent Father Suryn seeks out the advice of a local rabbi, whose bare room and Rasputin-like appearance cast even more of an eerie feel around Loudon’s theological consuetude. The rabbi, bathed in light, discusses the origins of good and evil while simultaneously chastising Suryn for his religion’s indistinct history and indifferent double standards; Suryn, both bewildered and aghast at the rabbi’s insinuations, remains seated in darkness. Both men are looking directly into our eyes. But the fact that actor Mieczyslaw Vojt plays both Suryn and the rabbi—an incredible dual performance hidden from us by clever lighting and a simple change in approach—makes this scene metaphorically significant; though the atmosphere of religious contention remains, the rabbi can be seen as Suryn’s own doubt over his own beliefs, his own devotion. As with the mirror scenes, it becomes obvious that Suryn is wavering between his commitment to doctrine and the draw of his unceasing emotions; it’s an internal conflict that leads him towards an unfathomable decision, one meant to substitute Mother Joan’s sins with his own.
According to an introductory pamphlet included with the Second Run DVD, hints of allegory drown Kawalerowicz’s film. Some see Mother Joan of the Angels as a metaphor of the political atmosphere in 1960s Poland, while others detect allusions to the 17th century conflict between religion and the rise in science and reason. In 2001, Kawalerowicz offered that the possession of both Mother Joan and Suryn are not simply evil spirits demonizing their bodies, but rather “external manifestations of their repressed love. The devils are like sins, opposite to their human nature. It is like the devils give the man and woman an excuse for their human love.” Suryn and Mother Joan, bound by creed to emotional temperance and celibacy, can only love one another under the guise of possession. But even then, once their lifetimes of devotions are set aside, faith triumphs in keeping them apart forever.