Lucyna Winnicka in Mother Joan Of The Angels (1961)...
"Maybe the trouble is not demons, but the absence of angels."
- The Rabbi (Mieczyslaw Voit)
Can love conquer evil on Satan's Earth? That's one of the central questions posed in Mother Joan Of The Angels, an intensely disturbing exploration of faith, hysteria and id in 17th Century Poland, based upon the 1943 novella by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Adapted by acclaimed writer-director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Mother Joan recounts the extraordinary tale of Father Józef Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit), the Catholic priest whose relationship with a convent of possessed nuns, especially the feverish sister superior Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), lead him to confront the basest notion of evil, and consider himself a martyr for her salvation.
Although the film has long been overshadowed by its infamous quasi-sequel The Devils (Russell, 1971), Mother Joan Of The Angels was the first cinematic treatment of the Loudon possessions which took place between 1634 - 1636, shortly after an outbreak of the plague which had killed more than 3000 people in the town. Interestingly, Kawalerowicz bypasses completely the 1934 story covered in The Devils, instead focusing around the aftermath of Father Grandier's execution; the pyre at which he was burnt sticks out in the barren landscape like a sore thumb, reminding us of the horrors which have beset this town before Father Suryn's arrival, and the horrors which will beset them once more.
In The Devils, Grandier (Oliver Reed) is accused of witchcraft by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), whose fantasies about the licentious priest have been further aroused by the presence of Satan. When Grandier spurs her advances, and secretly marries the meek Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones), her insanity reaches its peak. She reveals to Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) her beloved's secret affairs, and falsifies an account of his dabbling in black magic. This tale suits the dastardly Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who has arrived with orders to demolish the city of Loudon. He quickly supports the rumours that Grandier has bewitched the convent, and hires the eccentric Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to perform public exorcisms on the nuns. Even when Barre's methods are exposed as fraudulent the theatrics continue, descending into an orgy of chaos and delirium in a scene which has often been branded 'The Rape Of Christ'. Grandier is tried, found guilty and burnt before the crowd who condemned him, while Laubardemont sets off explosive charges and brings down the town's walls. Sister Jeanne is left deranged and alone, masturbating with one of Grandier's charred bones.
Naturally, Russell's carnivalesque horror greatly exaggerates the events of 1634, distorting the town of Loudon into an anachronistic dystopia, closer in design to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) than any period piece of its time. By contrast, the Loudon of Mother Joan (the story is reinterpreted on Polish soil, but I shall continue to refer to the town as Loudon; Kawalerowicz doesn't identify it by any other name) feels disturbingly real - the stark, devastated earth between Father Suryn's lodgings and the convent are all that remains after Laubardemont's political bombings, and the remains - namely, the nuns - have been left to fester in its forsaken expanse. The minimalism of this land, captured in stylized black and white by DP Jerzy Wójcik, recalled for me the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer and Miklós Jancsó, but also carries through some of the symbolism from Kawalerowicz's Night Train (1959), the film which launched him onto the international stage, having won the coveted Georges Méliès award at 1959's Venice Film Festival.
The film makes fascinating comment on the duality of faith, but for me it's also one of the most unusual depictions of empathy which the cinema has ever produced. At the film's start Father Suryn is bound by his duty to God, but by its end that has irrevocably changed; he still believes, I think, in the Lord which guided him to Loudon, but his judgement of that Lord is less crystalline, less wholesome than before (it's probably for this reason that the film came under fire from the Catholic Church, who called it "anti-clerical"). In the opening scene we see him lying in the position of an inverted cross and reciting Psalm 51, which reads on its second verse "Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." But following his meeting with the wise Rabbi (also played by Voit), I think Father Suryn comes to question whether this world is by its very nature sinful, and sowed of the devil's hand. Or perhaps he finally considers Father Brym's idea that God's grand plan allows for sin, so that the people may accept the Lord into their hearts ("Can you bring God to a man through the devil?"). After the nun's collective exorcism proves ineffective, Father Suryn decides that Mother Joan must be treated in isolation, and it is here that he develops unusual feelings for her - not romantic or sexual, per se, although the priest's acts of self-flagellation do become more violent, and seemingly more frequent following their sessions - but rather he is profoundly saddened by her plight. In one deeply uncomfortable scene she tells him that her soul is open to the devils, that their presence brings her joy, and that if she cannot become a saint it is better to be damned. Looking into her eyes he accepts that this is not the devil speaking, but Mother Joan herself. He is struck by her pain, ravaged with it, and understands that his quest to save her can only be completed by inducing an equal pain. He accepts the devils into his body and, to imprison them, murders two innocent stable boys; his body is now the cage.
But only following his meeting with the Rabbi does the simple Father Suryn reach this conclusion, realising not only the duality of faith, and that the tenets of his religion are cut from the same cloth as the Jew's ("You are me and I am you"), but also the necessity for evil where there is good. The Rabbi asks where angels descend from. "God sends them", replies Father Suryn. So then, suggests the Rabbi, God must also send the devils. The idea here seems to be that evil's combative force needn't always be good - sometimes a greater evil can prevail, and vanquish that which was present before. All man must do is invite Satan into his soul, an act which may only occur if God wills it. It might appear that Father Suryn's faith is shaken by the end of this scene, but actually it is transfigured. Upon hearing Mother Joan's plea, the words of the Rabbi crystallize, and he commits the greatest possible crime for her salvation. "Make her a saint", he begs, clinging to the axe which had freed her. We now remember that opening frame, of Father Suryn lying in the position of an inverted cross, another of the film's dualities; at once it is the sign of Peter's respect to the crucified Christ, and also one of the universal symbols of Satan.
It could be argued that Father Suryn was not meant to take the Rabbi's words literally, but here we come to the film's concept of id vs. superego, i.e. inherent evil vs. practiced faith. The question seems to be whether or not man needs to accept Satan into his soul in order to become evil, if the devils are already manifested as impulse and desire, emotions dormant in us all, and ready to be released from birth? Father Suryn imagines evil tangibly, looking upon the pristine white of Mother Joan's veil - at one point shot from behind her head, where she takes the form of a milk marble statuette - as the symbol of her purity, and beneath it the dark forces writhing, coursing like ink through her veins. Now Father Suryn is faced with a decision - follow the teachings of his own faith, continue prayer and hope that Mother Joan becomes free of her demons, or open his mind to the Rabbi's words, and follow the impulses which for so long he has denied? In these latter scenes we are confronted with an almost schizophrenic figure in Father Suryn, and Voit's astonishing performance locks us into the character's fear and confusion.
The more I write about Mother Joan Of The Angels, the more I realise that it could easily sit amongst the greatest films I've ever seen. Even now, 1400 words into this review, I haven't scratched its surface or talked of its magnificent music, lighting, staging and performances, or the way Kawalerowicz's camera glides through the story like a dove soaring above the clouds, as if this were some obscure, terrifying dream. Scene after scene it is a work of breathtaking spectacle and complexity, and undoubtedly the crowning achievement of early-60s Polish cinema.
Mother Joan Of The Angels was one of Second Run's very first releases when they launched in 2005, and now, just two months after the first ever UK DVD of The Devils, their restoration - supervised by DP Jerzy Wójcik - has reset the quality bar they helped establish. The image here could easily be mistaken for Blu-Ray such is its depth and clarity - there is no smudging or grain to be found anywhere, and the black and white shading is more impactful than ever. The sound is also crisp and clear, meaning that this is not only the best version of Mother Joan available, but also the best technical achievement in Second Run's history.
On the disc there's a 22-minute appreciation with writer/historian Michael Brooke, whose stack of Second Run DVD's - tucked away in the corner behind his chair - must be the sneakiest bit of subliminal marketing I've ever seen (for the record, I'm sure this was not the company's intention). It's probably best to watch this video after the feature, for there are spoilers abound, but the context and theory he applies is invaluable and clearly communicated. The 20-page booklet features a discussion of Kawalerowicz from writer/historian Michael Brooke, who outlines the themes of the director's work across its entire course, and considers his role in the growing film culture of post-thaw Poland (he was head of the 'Kadr' film unit). There's also an exemplary essay by lecturer and editor of Film Philosophy, David Sorfa, who takes apart the history of the Loudon possessions and provides vital context to not only this film, but also The Devils (heck, he even considers it in relation to The Exorcist, Friedkin, 1973). It's a comprehensive and fascinating package, doing justice to an unknown masterpiece ripe for rediscovery.
Mother Joan Of The Angels is released on DVD on May 28th...